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Masters 2023: Brooks Koepka is finally interesting

Masters 2023

Ben Walton

April 07, 2023

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Brooks Koepka was once Brooks Koepka, Destroyer of Worlds. Through two humid days at Augusta National, where even the pimento is sweating, that Brooks Koepka appears to be back. The Brooks of the big drives and baby-sized shirts and sneers of righteous indignation to both the course and competition that shout, “You cannot contain me.” However there is also another Brooks on the prowl, a Brooks most fans didn't think existed, and his presence sends this already-packed Masters weekend into overdrive.

And that is a Brooks who is, finally, interesting.

To be clear, Koepka has always been impressive. He made bold proclamations, such as when he said the only weeks he cared about were majors and that those weeks were easy, then backed those words up with his play. In a sport that adheres to a gentlemen ethos—and a sport that has no appetite for controversy—he was not afraid to be an agitator. He was a warrior, laboring like hell for most of the 2021 season and still contended in that year’s PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Open Championship. He played a game that did not get credit for its well-roundedness, one that facilitated its share of fireworks while adhereing to a patience needed to win on the biggest stages.

But, interesting? Brooks never captivated fans, not truly. Part of that stems from Koepka’s assertions about the game, that it was his profession but not his passion. Part of that stems from a performance that was so total and dominant and inevitable that it became anticlimactic. Part of that stems from an occasionally-cold demeanor and the simple truth that some athletes possess a magnetism that pulls us in ... and some don’t. The relationship between golf and Koepka was a relationship neither side was interested in cultivating.

This can explain why, when Koepka joined the exodus to LIV Golf last summer, it was an exit that went relatively under the radar compared to other LIV signings. In hindsight this is objectively hilarious; the guy who complained about always being disrespected was disrespected even when he defected. It was also sad, because arguably with the move Koepka became more interesting than he's ever been.

He was golf’s ultimate gamer joining a tour that some believe is nothing more than an exhibition. He had previously said someone on the PGA Tour will sell out and jump at the Saudi money. He was the guy who took pride in not being told what to do by anyone joining a circuit backed by people who unequivocally and absolutely tell everyone what to do. So when he played poorly at the U.S. Open just days before his LIV departure, followed by a terrible showing at St. Andrews, you had to wonder if we were watching someone at odds with himself, turning into the very person he swore he’d never be.

Whatever merit lies with that opinion, Koepka’s choice can be distilled to this: His body—the one so ungolf-like he was often compared to a linebacker—betrayed him long before he let on, that the Koepka who was such a juggernaut at majors the past five years might be gone and not coming back. Koepka confirmed as much Friday afternoon, saying if he felt as good last summer as he does now the jump to LIV would have been difficult.

It’s a moot point because the jump was made, one that was documented on the Netflix docuseries “Full Swing.” And those two things have made Koepka by far the most captivating player entering the weekend.

To some, he will be seen as the foil due to his association with LIV Golf, a nod to the league’s ties to a Saudi regime accused of numerous human-rights atrocities. LIV is the league that has spurred a civil war in the professional game that has led to existential questions about the sport and where it’s going and who is behind the wheel. LIV is the league suing the PGA Tour possibly out of its existence and a league whose antitrust cries led to a probe by the Department of Justice that entangled Augusta National into the circus.

To be fair Koepka was never part of the lawsuit and unlike some of his LIV peers he maintains friendships with players on tour. Still, to say a large contingent of fans might have complicated feelings towards LIV, and by extension, Koepka, would be putting it lightly. To win his fifth major and first green jacket Koepka will have to do so in front of some patrons that don’t want to see him do it.

Conversely, Koepka’s never been more popular thanks to his participation in the Netflix show. In the series Koepka revealed a side fans have never seen. When he’s inside the ropes Koepka plays the jock, the one who doesn’t emote and is too cool for school. On the show, Koepka was vulnerable, insecure, willing to show that tough-guy persona is a facade to a person that feels he’s not as good as he once was and questions if he has what it takes to be great again. He was not one of legendary conviction. He was a human who was physically and psychologically and emotionally hurt.

Koepka, as he’s prone to do behind a microphone, wasn’t overflowery when speaking on the show’s impact to his reception, saying at last week’s LIV event a fan was chirping at him about the show. But that was LIV and this is the Masters, a place with the most well-behaved galleries in golf. Yet while patrons are polite to all, their esteem is saved for just a few, and walking around with Koepka through two days at Augusta National, it’s clear the patrons are embracing the Koepka who was willing to let his guard down and let the world in.

These two polar opposite perspectives have led to one heck of a dynamic this weekend. To some, Koepka will wear the black hat. To others, Koepka is the favorite. How that plays out will be interesting, and thank God for that.