A frustrating week at Bay Hill ends with Brooks Koepka less worried than others about his game
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ORLANDO – Brooks Koepka has been looking for a spark, something—anything, really—to initiate the restoration of the preeminence he has demonstrated the last few years. It wouldn’t take much. A few years ago, it didn’t take much.
Koepka recalls a practice round at the WGC-Dell Match Play in 2017 when he hit a tee shot and “something clicked.” Said Koepka: “And it was like, boom, off and running. Just found it and built a pretty good year off it.”
More like a couple of pretty good years. He won back-to-back U.S. Open titles in 2017-’18 and he is the current two-time reigning PGA champion. He was World No. 1 for 38 straight weeks until Rory McIlroy passed him last month.
This anecdote is not unlike the one Tiger Woods shared early in his career as he worked to make swing changes under Butch Harmon in 1998. One good swing, and Tiger dialed up Harmon to tell the renowned instructor, “I’ve got it.”
That eureka moment still eludes Koepka, at least as it relates to his full swing. “Still sht. Still sht,” he repeated in describing his overall game. “[But] putting better.”
And it’s his putting that might get him untracked from the doldrums in which he’s been captive.
Despite bookend double bogeys to his round Sunday, Koepka posted his first sub-par score of the week, a one-under 71, to close out his visit to the Arnold Palmer Invitational. That effort, which left him at nine-over 297 for the week, was a 10-stroke improvement from his Saturday tour of Bay Hill Club, when the wind strafed already cantankerous greens and left conditions more trying than most recent U.S. Open tests.
“Yesterday was probably one of the harder rounds I think, definitely in the top 10 I've played out here,” he said.
And it’s certainly harder when your swing is, well … bad word, bad word.
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In the midst of a five-week run to tidy up things before the Masters, where he finished second to Woods a year ago, Koepka had a bit of a glimmer in his eye Sunday, even after that closing double bogey that resulted from a visit to Little Lake Arnie. (Note to my editors: I’m copyrighting this.)
The putter is giving him hope. Early in the week on the practice putting green, Koepka appeared exasperated. On Sunday, although he three-putted the opening hole, he was liking his rhythm. He needed only 27 putts, his best performance of the week. And on that alone he was feeling better with the Players next on his plate.
“I’m pleased the way I’m putting it, short game’s good. I just need to figure out the long game,” said Koepka, 29, who has slipped to No. 3 in the world. “Listen, it’s coming together piece by piece. So the way I see it, the putting hasn't quite been there, the touch hasn’t been there, but now that I found that, I found a little bit of rhythm there, just build on that. And that was kind of the part that’s felt really far away, where this week it was kind of a flip-flop. Long game, I don’t know, it feels so unorthodox and, but it will come. It’s only a matter of time.”
Koepka hasn’t been himself since undergoing knee surgery following the Tour Championship, and he was so slow to heal that he had to pull out of the Presidents Cup in December in Melbourne.
His preference is to never play more than three straight weeks, but he is determined to unlock whatever secrets to his game are currently eluding him, so he’s on a five-week golf bender. “You find that one feeling and sometimes that’s why I think it’s important to play or to get out there,” he explained.
He began to talk about how the practice range doesn’t necessarily yield improvement. And yet, this week, he has ventured out to nearby Lake Nona nearly every evening and beat balls to dusk and beyond. His caddie, Ricky Elliott, has been holding the flashlight from his phone over the ball as Koepka has kept after it. Undoubtedly, Hogan would have done this had the technology existed. Who knows, maybe he did. They had flashlights and automobile headlights in his era.
The answers are in the dirt regardless of the presence of sunlight.
“Every day we’re grinding, practicing, trying to figure it out and eventually all the hard work’s going to pay off,” Koepka said. “It’s just a matter of how quick it’s going to turn.”
Maybe the native Floridian loves the game more than he lets on. Or maybe he just enjoys the successes in competition—a very Jack Nicklaus disposition. That’s not to say the Golden Bear didn’t enjoy golf; he very much reveled in its challenges. But he often said the game was his avenue to competition.
Koepka is one competitive dude.
Asked if he would like to regain the No. 1 spot in the World Ranking, Koepka was his usual forthright self. “It’s important. You would like to, but if you play like this, you’ve got a long way to go.”
It always seems a long way. Until, perhaps, something clicks.