Feinstein: Brooks Koepka Isn't Boring; He's Brilliant

Many in the golf world haven't embraced Koepka; it's time for that to change, John Feinstein says

John Feinstein
May 21, 2019 - 9:45 am
Brooks Koepka PGA Championship

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On Saturday afternoon, I walked for a while with the final third-round PGA Championship pairing of Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth.
         
It was a spectacular day, and the Bethpage Black spectators—for the most part—were enthusiastic about both players. And why not? Both were three-time major champions; both are young and handsome; both are appealing characters.
         
Spieth, who is still only 25, was about as early a bloomer as you can be, winning two major championships in 2015, prior to turning 22. Tiger Woods was 23 when he won his second major.
         
Koepka can hardly be called a late-bloomer, but it took him a little while longer to find stardom. He won on Tour for the first time in 2015, a few months prior to turning 25, and then burst into stardom 16 months later when he won the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
         
Spieth has struggled mightily since winning the British Open in 2017. In fact, he arrived at Bethpage having not finished in the top TWENTY this year and had dropped to 39th in the Official World Golf Rankings. Koepka had won three of his previous seven majors and finished tied for second a month earlier at the Masters. He was ranked third in the world—which was more of a computer anomaly than fact; there was little doubt in the minds of most who follow golf that he has been the world’s best player for most of the last two years.
         
And yet, there was this perception that he somehow wasn’t a star or wasn’t worthy of stardom. My friend and former colleague Brandel Chamblee—who I think is as good as it gets when it comes to talking about golf on television—had flatly stated that Koepka just wasn’t as good as Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy.
         
Woods won the Masters in April—his first major victory in 11 years. Johnson, who the computer claimed was No. 1 in the world coming into Bethpage, has won ONE major and that came three years ago at the U.S. Open. McIroy—who everyone knows I couldn’t possibly like more—has won four majors, but the most recent was the 2014 PGA.
         
As always, Chamblee came armed with statistics to back up his assertion: driving stats, putting stats, you-name-it stats. He missed the only stat that matters: Koepka: three majors since June of 2017. Other three: Two majors since the start of 2015.
         
But it wasn’t just Chamblee, who is often willing to stake out positions on shaky tree limbs others won’t dare go near; it was a feeling among many—or so it seemed to me—that Koepka wasn’t the kind of champion either the media or most golf fans were willing to embrace.
          
Many of my colleagues in the media are still claiming that Koepka’s boring. Fans pick up on that.
         
They’re flat-out wrong. I first got to know Koepka in 2015 when I was beginning the research for “The First Major,” my book on the Ryder Cup. Koepka was refreshingly honest; self-deprecating, but not in a false way, and confident. He wanted to make that year’s President’s Cup team because it would help prepare him for the Ryder Cup and he WAS going to be on the Ryder Cup team.
         
Koepka’s not a fist-shaker on the golf course; he isn’t as outgoing as Phil Mickelson and he tends to speak in a monotone in press conferences. Plus, he wasn’t SUPPOSED to become this kind of star.
         
The golf media loves Woods because he drives TV ratings and internet clicks and, the more he plays, the more they get to travel to nice places on the company’s dime. If Koepka took over Woods’ hit-and-giggle event in the Bahamas every December, you think any of them would get a week-long vacation there?
         
No.
         
They also love Mickelson, because he’s eminently quotable and because he can be a hero or a train wreck—in the same week. Mickelson may not drive TV ratings a la Woods, but he sure gives everyone plenty of story lines.
         
The same is true of McIlroy, who is eminently quotable win or lose and who has a knack for truth-telling that might upset some people (notably the NBC suits when he dissed the Olympics three years ago) who prefer cliches and easy sound-bite quotes.
         
There’s also Jordan Spieth, who readily admits when the camera’s not rolling that he makes a point of staying “politically correct” on all things in press conferences and on-camera, but still has the boy-next-door look and personality and who may have finally found his missing putting stroke again this past weekend.
         
Koepka is none of the above. It isn’t as if he isn’t good-looking—even my wife, who rarely finds jocks attractive thinks Koepka’s handsome—and there’s no doubt he is in remarkable shape, although I could have lived without the photo he and his girlfriend posted from vacation in their thongs.
            
He says very smart things all the time; honest things all the time. Somehow, that’s not what people are looking for. He’s said he believes he can win 10 majors before he’s through and he admitted Sunday night that Chamblee saying during Masters week that he didn’t believe Koepka was tough enough to compete on the same level as Woods, Johnson and McIlroy, “really pissed me off.”
         
He used the dreaded c-word Sunday when he was asked about the proud-to-be-rude New York fans (I say that as someone born and raised in New York) chanting, “DJ, DJ,” at him when he walked off the 14th green Sunday after four straight bogeys, his seven shot lead cut to one.
         
“I think it actually helped me,” he said of the chants. Then he shrugged and added, “I didn’t blame them. I was half-choking it away.”
         
I enjoy Koepka’s honesty. He answers questions the way he plays golf: he’s completely straightforward. He doesn’t play for laughs the way Mickelson might; he doesn’t try to use a lot of words to say very little a la Woods and he isn’t politically correct like Spieth.
         
Last June, I had the chance to conduct a Q+A with Koepka and McIlroy in front of a couple of hundred people in Hartford. Both were smart, charming and funny.
         
No one was surprised by Rory. Many were surprised by Brooks.
         
“You spend time with him, even a little bit of time, he’s as smart as anyone on Tour,” McIlroy said to me walking out. This from someone who also fits that description.
         
When I walked back into the media center Saturday, with Koepka leading by eight, here are some of the comments I heard:
         
“Why’d you waste your time out there, nothing to see.”
         
“What a snooze.”
         
“There is good news. This will be over tomorrow.”

I don’t remember hearing comments like that when Woods or Mickelson or McIlroy were in command at majors. It was more like, “What a performance!” Or, “This is history-making stuff.”
         
What Koepka’s done in the last 23 months is also history-making stuff. I thought his victory at Shinnecock last June was pretty damn dramatic: he’d missed the Masters because he had to have wrist surgery; he was fighting to make the cut after 27 holes and he rallied on a great golf course to win a second straight U.S. Open.
         
And yet, all the talk after Shinnecock was about the USGA messing up the Saturday setup and Mickelson melting down and hitting a moving ball on the 13th green that same day.
         
Since 1950, three men have won back-to-back Opens: Ben Hogan, Curtis Strange and Koepka. One man has won it three years in a row: Willie Anderson, who did it from 1903 to 1905. Koepka will have a shot at matching that mark at Pebble Beach.
         
I don’t find brilliance boring. I also don’t find Koepka boring—anything but. Even Chamblee admitted on Sunday night, “He’s won me over.”
         
He should have won everyone over a while ago. Koepka’s still only 29 and he’s just now starting to feel comfortable with stardom. My guess is he’ll feel even more comfortable if he continues to play well.
         
I was standing on the first tee Saturday when Koepka arrived. As all the players do, he paused to shake hands with the teenager carrying the walking scoreboard; with the official scorer for his group and with the referee for the twosome.
         
But he did something with the teenage girl that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a player do in all the years I’ve been standing on first tees and watching players arrive to start a round.
         
He looked her right in the eye and said, “Hi, I’m Brooks.”
         
The young lady had no answer for that—which was understandable. My guess is she really appreciated Koepka’s gesture and the fact that he paused and looked her right in the eye as he introduced himself.
         
It was a simple moment, that would have gone completely unnoticed if I hadn’t happened to be standing there.
         
The best way to judge someone is by the way they behave when they don’t think anyone is watching them.
         
People are just now beginning to understand that what they’re watching when Koepka is playing golf is special. I hope in that not-too-distant future they’ll understand that he’s also very good at being a human being.
 
                  
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “The Prodigy,” a novel about a 17-year-old who has a chance to win The Masters but has to fight off agents, equipment reps and his own father, all of whom want to turn him into a human ATM machine before he even graduates from high school. His latest non-fiction book is, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in the National Football League.” John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com