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Brooks Koepka, a year after the pain and uncertainty, now among favorites at Kapalua (and elsewhere)

January 02, 2019

Stan Badz/PGA Tour

KAPALUA, Hawaii — A year ago here at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Brooks Koepka knew there was something wrong with his wrist. And he didn’t need a last-place finish and scores of 78-74-78-75 on the par-73 Plantation Course as proof.

Despite two MRIs that showed nothing wrong, Koepka couldn’t complete a swing without searing pain shooting into his hand. He said the sensation was like a knife jabbing into it. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a partially torn tendon that forced him to shut down golf and workouts for more than two months. He missed the Masters.

The year was not looking promising as he departed Maui for what looked like the great unknown.

“I was talking about that with my caddie [Ricky Elliott] today, how last year Sunday was kind of weird,” Koepka said Wednesday during a pre-tournament press conference for this winner’s only event. “We were all kind of in the room and nobody really knew when I was going to play again, if I was going to be able to. … And then to get back and figure out what was going on was pretty scary. Guys, basically, it’s the end of their career with the injury and it’s not … the unknown isn’t fun.

“To sit back and really hope to be able to play again and then, OK, well, am I still going to be able to do the things I do? I got that bowed wrist at the top, and I couldn’t even do that, just holding nothing I couldn’t move my wrist in that direction. So just to be out playing was great, and then to do what I did was kind of, it’s kind of wild to think about it.”

It was kind of historic, too.

When the PGA Tour season resumes Thursday at Kapalua’s Plantation Course, Koepka will be feeling better about a lot of things, and not just the fact that he is healthy. He is the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year after successfully defending his U.S. Open title at Shinnecock Hills in June and then later in the summer adding the PGA Championship at Bellerive.

The Florida native is only the seventh man to win back-to-back U.S. Open titles and one of just five to capture the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same year.

That’s not wild, except perhaps beyond his expectations given where he was a year ago.

And he wasn’t finished. In October, he started the 2018-’19 season with his fifth career tour victory at the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea. So much for resting on laurels, which there was no way he was about to do given his competitive nature. He ended the year, by the slimmest of margins over Justin Rose, as No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

No wonder he is among the favorites on a rain-softened Plantation Course in the exclusive 34-man field, which includes good friend Dustin Johnson, the defending champion, Rory McIlroy, making his debut in the field, and fellow reigning major champions Patrick Reed and Francesco Molinari.

It seems he’s primed for an encore, except that encores are a crescendo to an ending of a performance. Koepka, at 28, is really just getting started, and so this year, with four full majors on the horizon, is about how he can build on an impressive foundation of success.

“Just keep that confidence high,” said Koepka, who tees off at 5:20 p.m. EST (12:20 in Hawaii) on Thursday, playing alongside Keegan Bradley. “I feel like I’m very confident with where the preparation I put in, the focus that I’ve had in tournaments, and I feel like I’ve brought that over to regular PGA Tour events. Where sometimes I kind of press a little too hard and instead of just playing that conservatively aggressive approach I have at the majors. Where I think it’s starting to come around in regular tour events and don’t feel like I have to push and have to win, just let it come sometimes.”

Having missed the Masters last year, naturally he is chomping at the bit to get back to Augusta, where he has posted an intriguing ordinal string of finishes before being forced to watch the last one from home.

“I feel like every time I’ve gone to Augusta I think I’ve been trending in the right direction,” he noted. “I think we have gone what, 31st, 21st and 11. So I can knock off another 1, that would be nice. It’s a good little pattern going in.”

A good little pattern that has been going on for a while.