Near the end of the 2015 PGA season, I wrote about the Next Triumvirate. At that time, Jordan Spieth had finished off a season in which he had won two majors and finished second in the other two. Jason Day appeared ready for superstardom after a record-setting performance in that year’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, and Rory McIlroy was one year removed from a season in which HE had won two majors, giving him a total of four in his short career.
It seemed for all the world like these three would be racking up majors for years to come.
2015 was also Brooks Koepka’s first full season on the PGA Tour. Unlike the others, who had been heralded as up and coming stars, Koepka was a middling collegiate player who decided to try his hand in Europe. He worked his way through the ranks of the Challenge Tour and eventually earned full European Tour privileges and won an event in Turkey in 2014. He was given some PGA Tour sponsor exemptions and earned his card – and his first tour victory in 2015 in Scottsdale amidst the crazies at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
I saw Koepka in person in 2016 at the Byron Nelson Classic, where he bulled his way into a playoff with Sergio Garcia, who, despite his sometime immature behavior, was a huge crowd favorite. On the first playoff hole, Brooks hooked his drive into the large pond that borders the 18th hole at TPC Las Colinas, which elicited a few cheers from those fans watching on the course and guaranteed a victory for Garcia.
I don’t know how much that particular incident contributed to the sizable chip that Koepka carries on his shoulder, but I’m sure it did in some fashion. By his own admission in the presser that followed his repeat victory in the PGA Championship yesterday, Koepka will find motivation in the most innocuous of slights, or even make up such episodes to motivate himself.
His relationship with the media has been somewhat contentious, as he has often felt that he hasn’t been given proper respect for his accomplishments. Golf fans in general have been slow to warm to him – he’s perceived as being robotic and emotionless (the latter of which was given a boost when a video of him blowing off a pre-final round good luck kiss from girlfriend Jena Sims went viral). And, as was pointed out in countless tweets throughout the tournament, he’s not Tiger Woods.
I’m not going to predict that Koepka will catch Woods in any victory category – he is, after all something of a late bloomer – but Tiger’s comments on Friday after catching “Brooksie’s” act (Woods still loves diminutive nicknames, even when he’s getting dusted) for two days were telling, and not a little ironic – “He’s hitting 9-iron’s and wedges where the rest of us are hitting 5 and 6 irons,” which is pretty much what the opposition was saying about Mr Woods back in 1997.
Koepka’s recent dominance coinciding with Tiger’s apparent resurgence also recalls a time when Jack Nicklaus dared take the crown from Arnold Palmer. Nicklaus was belittled as “Fat Jack” and subjected to catcalls in his famous 1962 playoff victory over Arnie – not unlike Koepka having to endure chants of “DJ! DJ!” when Dustin Johnson was making his back nine move on Sunday. Nicklaus has always claimed that he was oblivious to the barbs hurled at him that day; Koepka stated that he used the opposition cheers as motivation.
In any event, Koepka’s mental approach is almost as impressive as his physical skills on the course. This post-round statement from him is particularly telling:
“I don’t need a sports psychologist. I’m pretty good at it. I know what I’m doing. It’s simpler than what guys think. Guys make the mistake when they get to a major…what’s different. It’s not. It’s just focus. It’s grind it out, suck it up, and move on.”
It sounds simple because it is simple. And I suspect that we’ll see the same next month at Pebble Beach.
In the meantime, the major victory scoreboard since I wrote about the Next Triumvirate:
Brooks Koepka – 4
Triumvirate – 1
You know – in case Brooks needs any more motivation.