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Mental Game

Masters 2023: For Brooks Koepka, a return of high expectations has a downside

Masters 2023

Ben Walton

April 09, 2023

When Brooks Koepka hobbled his way through the past few golf seasons there might have been an unintended benefit. Not being able to play your best golf is frustrating. But subconsciously it also lowers expectations. You don’t lament every mistake in the same way, you even allow yourself the occasional moral victory. There is no elite golfer who would prefer this to having their best stuff. But having your best stuff? That’s hard in its own way, too.

On the final day of the Masters, all of this came into focus for Koepka. The golfer who had retreated both emotionally and physically in recent years had returned in resounding fashion at Augusta National. Fresh off his win at LIV Orlando, he held the lead after each of the first three rounds, and even began employing the language that had defined his most dominant golf.

“The whole goal is to win the Grand Slam, right?” Koepka said on Friday. “I guess it's one more box for me to tick to truly feel like I've done what I should have accomplished in this game.”

Of all the words in that answer, one is particularly toxic for golfers: “should.” It might be the worst word in the game because it suggests a golfer is now contending with more than the course and other players in the field, but his own expectations. Koepka should win the Grand Slam given what he has already accomplished in golf. He should be in contention when he’s healthy. He should have no problem with a four-shot lead to start the day.

That Koepka stumbled to a 75 in the final round, seeing a two-shot cushion on the first tee morph into a four-shot loss to Jon Rahm, could be attributed to a host of factors, including the lingering effects of his knee injury. But the return of his own high standards probably didn’t help.

“Many times we hear competitors talk about saying that they expected to win or they expected to do well,” said sports psychologist Bhrett McCabe, who has worked with Rahm among other tour players. “If that is your thinking, then you are falling into a trap of expectations. When you expect to win or expect to play well, what you are really doing is taking evidence of the past and merging it with a hope for the future, creating a story in your mind that you simply cannot live up to. As a result of not living up to those expectations, you get frustrated earlier, become more judgmental, and lose your grit and resilience.”

One of the most telling moments in the episode of Netflix’s “Full Swing” that featured Koepka was the four-time major champion looking enviously at Scottie Scheffler. He was in the middle of a slump, Scheffler was on a heater that culminated with a win in the 2022 Masters. To Koepka, one difference between the two was apparent.

“That kid, I guarantee if you ask him what he's thinking about, he goes, 'Nothing,'” Koepka remarked at one point. “The best damn player in the world doesn't have any damn thoughts in his head, so why would you?”

When golfers speak of the advantages of a clear head, they don’t mean an absence of strategy, or reason. They mean a lack of noise. It means they’re thinking only about the shots in front of them, and not the type of narrative that steers them off course. Koepka alluded to his lofty ambitions in his post-round remarks. He told CBS that now that he’s healthy, “I expect to be there in the other three.” To Sky Sports, he said, “Second’s not very fun, that’s motivation.” Later he allowed that he would be able to extract some positives from Sunday, but not easily.

"Right now, it's kind of tough to see, if I'm honest, probably for the next few hours and the next few days," he said.

Gone were the moral victories, and in their place came a rigid definition of success.

Although Rahm also works with a sports psychologist in his native Spain, he’s worked with McCabe, which led to a question of what McCabe advises his players who feel like they’ve got everything clicking. Confidence is great, the coach said, but not when it “adds undue urgency, increases stress, and reduces acceptance.”

“I advise in that situation that they appreciate good feels but they must be disciplined and not get ahead of themselves,” McCabe said. “Even the cutest puppies can bite hard.”