This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of GOLF Magazine. It has been lightly edited for clarity since shipping time.
The walk up the 18th hole at Augusta National is supposed to be enjoyable. But on the second Friday in April of this year, the hike could not have been fun for Bob Koepka.
The wind whipped 25 miles per hour as we trudged up the treadmill-worthy incline. His son dele Brooks was five over par for the tournament, searching for his tee shot among the pines and about to miss a second straight cut at the Masters. Bob had no reason to be smiling, but he was, lost in the memory of the first time Brooks beat him on a golf course.
Twenty years ago, when Bob was a club champion, he was a perfect match for 12-year-old Brooks. And one day, with Brooks ahead after two holes of their typical nine-hole jaunt, the little guy danced around the green, giddy as ever. Ninety minutes later, when the kid missed a 5-footer for par, his eyes dele welled as he came to grips with another loss to Dad — and with the loser’s prize of doing the dishes after dinner.
“He would have been doing dishes no matter what,” Bob says, “but I wanted him to think that the putt meant something.”
It was an important precursor, Bob thinks. Two weeks later, Brooks took him for the first time, but there was no fist-pumping and definitely no tears. No surprise, either. Brooks hadn’t even realized he’d won. “Because he was so focused on himself,” his father says.
Now, Bob’s grin was brimming with pride. He talked about raising his son the same way his parents raised him, in a house where you “had to earn everything.” He then turned our chat to everything Brooks has taught him over the years.
The lessons. They’re a common thread you find when talking to the people in Koepka’s inner circle. Some he’s learned, others he’s taught. This time of year — US Open season, Brooks Koepka season — we should pay attention.
Ask Chris Malloy, a former assistant coach at Florida State, about his finest pupil and he doesn’t talk victories or what the kid looked like coming out of high school. What comes to mind first is Koepka’s self-belief, of the mildly delusional variety.
The Seminoles were competing in the 2010 NCAA Men’s Golf Championships in Tennessee, and, in their downtime, they were watching the Korn Ferry Tour on TV. Journeyman Tommy Gainey, then 34, with nearly $1 million in career prize money, was polishing off a win in Maryland and earning his way back to the PGA Tour. Koepka wasn’t impressed.
“I’m better than him,” he said to his teammates at the time.
“We just kind of laughed and said, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever,’” Malloy recalls. “But he wouldn’t let it go. He said, ‘I don’t care what it is. I’ll beat him right now. There is no doubt.’ It was one of those moments where you go, all right, this isn’t even worth arguing about because you’ll never be able to tell this guy anything different. When he first got out [on Tour]there is zero question that he thought not only was he going to beat Tiger Woods, but he could do it right then and there.”
LESSON 2: Learn from your mistakes. Immediately.
Koepka’s circuit route to the PGA Tour — first, through the Florida mini tours, then the Challenge Tour in Europe — has placed all kinds of people in his orbit. Brad Gehl, who bounced through many of the same tours Koepka did, recalls crumbling on the final hole of a Minor League Golf Tour event, losing thousands of dollars that would have covered caddy fees, hotels and travel for a blissful few months.
“Brooks and I went out to dinner that night, and I was kind of bitching about it,” Gehl says. “I remember he grabbed me on the shoulder, looked at me square in the eyes, and he’s like, ‘Do you know how much money I’ve lost on the last hole of a tournament?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He’s like, ‘More than you can count. You’ve got the second phase [of Korn Ferry qualifying] in a couple of weeks, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got two weeks.’ He goes, ‘Well, when you get on the 18th hole at second stage, when you’re about to get through, you’re not going to do what you just did. And that’s all that matters.’“
I’ve never forgotten that was so inherently his mentality,” says Gehl. “It wasn’t about making a mistake; it was about not making it again.”
LESSON 3: Transparency trumps all.
Koepka might not be on the cover of GOLF were it not for Pete Cowen’s short-game expertise and blunt dose of reality.
As the story goes, in June 2017, Koepka, then the 22nd-ranked player in the world, was dragging his heels at the St. Jude Classic. He was T-11 through two rounds but made two doubles on Saturday and five bogeys on Sunday to finish tied for 37th. He responded with a lot of “poor me” vibes, as Cowen remembers it, so the short-game coach pounced on him. His message from him: “If you want to be a champion, you have to have the attitude of a champion.”
A week later, Koepka became a major champion — at the US Open at Erin Hills.
Those thorny conversations — a bollocking, as Cowen put it — work particularly well with Koepka, the Tour leader in Strokes Gained: Keeping It Real.
“His staff has to be totally honest with him,” Cowen says. “We have meetings every year, and you can say what you want. It’s not personal; it’s purely professional. If it’s going to make him a better player, he wants to hear about it.”
And that bluntness is rewarded. “On the flight home from Erin Hills — I’ve still got [the text message],” notes Cowen. “It says, ‘Thanks for the bollocking. I couldn’t have done this without it.’”
LESSON 4: Confrontation is a good thing.
Put a microphone in front of Brooks and you’re bound to get something in return. It could be cockiness, it could be an eye roll, it could be a peek into the mind of an uncommon champion. But almost always it’s fueled by candor.
“I’ve always told him, just be honest,” his father says. “It doesn’t always have to be the most popular opinion. It’s your opinion and you believe it. Hold true to your word until someone proves you otherwise.”
After the third round of the 2020 PGA Championship, Koepka was asked to assess the leaderboard. He was tied for fourth and saw that Dustin Johnson was a few strokes ahead of him. But he shrugged him off: “He only has one [major win].” It was catnip for the Koepka haters and his most ardent fans of him.
Was he wrong? At the. Was he being himself? Yes. Was he vilified for the quote when, on Sunday, he shot 74? You bet. For Koepka, it’s the cost of doing business.
“It backfired on him,” Bob says. “But that is his persona. They asked him a question, and he answered it. You might not like the answer, but he gave you what’s on his mind him.”
That is how Koepka operates, and though it might not sit well with everyone, we’re better for it.
“He’s taught me a lot about communication, and I’ve taught him a lot about communication,” says Jena Sims, Brooks’ bride as of June 4. “But you can have really constructive conversations if you just have those uncomfortable conversations. It’s worth it on the other end. He’s not going to let anything pass by if he doesn’t agree with it. He speaks his mind about him, and people know exactly where he stands.”
LESSON 5: Push the boundaries.
Good luck finding golf clothes in the House of Koepka. They’re hidden in a separate closet in the laundry room, far from the sneakers and designer brands that fill Koepka’s actual wardrobe. “He wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of khakis,” Jena says, laughing.
“He loves to make his outfits count,” she continues, chuckling a little more.
Breaking tradition in golf is no laughing matter, but Koepka insists on it. The bleach-blond ‘do this spring. The three-piece suits at dinners. This year, he became the first pro to outfit his fans with player T-shirts that read “Koepka” across the back, like the kind you see at baseball stadiums across the country.
Koepka’s goosing of golf tradition reached its zenith at the 2019 Tour Championship, when he wore a pair of Off-White X Nike Air Max 90 golf shoes custom designed by Virgil Abloh, the Louis Vuitton creative director who passed away unexpectedly in late 2021. Koepka and Abloh shared a texting relationship, messages that Koepka still holds dear.
“Virgil took a liking to Brooks,” Jena says. “I think it’s because of how much of a black sheep he is in this golf fashion world. He had some special things in mind for Brooks that may or may not still be in the works.”
LESSON 6: Bet on yourself.
Koepka was miffed in 2018. He’d just won Major No. 3 over Dustin Johnson at Shinnecock and Major No. 4 against Tiger Woods at Bellerive. He was No. 1 in the world but not making a single dollar from an equipment deal.
Koepka knew his worth in sponsorship value and was unwilling to accept an offer of anything less. Playing whatever clubs he liked best for the next three years, he continued to power through at the majors, racking up three more top 10s and a fourth win in 2019, at the PGA Championship at Bethpage. It wasn’t until January 2021 that the equipment agent was wooed sufficiently free to sign on the dotted line. As Srixon-Cleveland Tour rep Rob Waters remembers it, all it took was one swing.
“He fell in love with the irons the very first shot he hit with them,” Waters says. “He was like, ‘This is the best-feeling iron I’ve ever hit in my life.’”
Koepka walked away with a set of ZX7 irons that day. Two weeks later, he won with them in Phoenix, then posted T-2 at the PGA, T-4 at the US Open and T-6 at the British Open. Just a typical Brooks Koepka summer.
He “wanted a home,” Waters says, and Srixon-Cleveland turned out to be a natural fit. Koepka has since added the Z-Star Diamond ball and ZX7 driver to his bag. While most players make equipment-deal announcements in January, Koepka’s came in November 2021, immediately preceding his high-profile, made-for-TV match against Bryson DeChambeau. That’s good business.
LESSON 7: Silence is an art form.
On the eve of this year’s Masters Tournament, Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee did as we all do: assessed Koepka’s chances differently than we do most players’. Koepka is, after all, a major championship anomaly, with top-10 finishes in half of his appearances.
Which version of Koepka will show up?
Chamblee spoke for all of us when he said, “We want a cocky Brooks Koepka.”
Why? Because a cocky Koepka is a fun Koepka. A contending Koepka. A can-you-believe-he-said-that, can-you-believe-he-did-that Koepka.
The problem: At this year’s Masters, we didn’t have a healthy Koepka. His hip labrum tear flared up that week in Augusta, to the point where he considered withdrawing. Rather than go public with his injury from him, he grinded silently, eager not to make it sound like an excuse. After back-to-back 75s on Thursday and Friday, not a single member of the media asked to speak with Koepka, so we didn’t hear about it. We didn’t hear from him for the next four weeks. He traveled to Turks and Caicos to finalize wedding plans and barely looked at his phone. He calls it “going dark” — shutting up and shutting down.
In fact, he’s enjoyed the power of silence recently, like the way he barely said a word to DeChambeau during The Match, where he let his clubs do the talking in a 5 and 3 drubbing. More ominous withholding followed a week later, in December 2021, at the Hero World Challenge.
He was asked a simple question: Have we seen the best of Brooks Koepka? Was 2018 your peak?
“That wasn’t peak,” he replied, shaking his head. “That wasn’t peak. Just wait.”
And with a wink, Koepka walked off the stage. What, exactly, was he trying to tell us? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. There’s a lesson in that.