PGA Championship 2018: Why doesn't golf consider Brooks Koepka a star?
ST. LOUIS — It’s fortunate Brooks Koepka is the size of South Dakota. Because the chip on his shoulder is … well, less of a chip and more of a boulder.
"I can think of plenty of people along the way telling me I'll be nothing, working at McDonald's," Koepka said Tuesday. "The whole time, you're just trying to prove them wrong."
In a sport full of prodigies and fledgling talents, Koepka and his prospects were as touted as they come. Herculean power, deft touch, an unflappable mind-set. His gifts were raw, yes, but his bite lived up to the bark, recording four top-10 finishes at majors before turning 27. His game—coupled with old-school Hollywood looks and a Raylan Givens demeanor—evoked its share of Arnold Palmer comparisons. Moreover, Koepka was one of the rare stories that followed the script, earning his breakthrough at Erin Hills and backing it up by defending his title at Shinnecock, the first to do so at the U.S. Open in three decades. Koepka cashed in on his promise.
Which begs an uncomfortable question: Why doesn't golf consider Brooks Koepka a star? A question Koepka simultaneously brushes off and contemplates, and keeps forever fastened on his back.
"Sometimes your haters are your biggest motivators," he says.
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Before sounding off on social media, let’s establish what constitutes star power. Although sports are society's ultimate meritocracy, performance, as unfortunate as this reality might be, remains only part of the equation. There needs to be engagement from those outside the ropes, a desire to learn more about an athlete than just their athletic prowess. A feeling that needs to be reciprocated by the athlete in question. Call it branding or interaction, but it's an important component. One that, so far, Koepka hasn’t developed.
He’s certainly captivating to watch, with a swing that’s half art form, half blunt-force trauma, and even against the aggressive mind-set that’s saturated the tour, his ambitious play is distinct. Yet he hasn’t galvanized galleries, his rounds often played in relative anonymity compared to other top-ranked players. He’s not hated; it’s just that he’s not beloved. He has 97,000 followers on Twitter; Rickie Fowler boasts 1.6 million. In many ways, Koepka is the inverse of Fowler, both owning what the other lacks.
It’s not just fans that aren’t on board. In an illuminating interview with Sports Illustrated, Koepka recalled that, at this year’s U.S. Open, Golf Channel failed to list him among its Day 1 notables. "I just won the event, top 10 in the world, and there’s 10 guys on that list, and not one of them is me," Koepka seethed.
He was suspiciously left off the Presidents Cup in 2015. That Koepka doesn’t have an equipment deal, but other young guns (like Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jason Day) do is conspicuous. Some deemed his Erin Hills triumph came with a caveat that, due to the benign set-up, it wasn't a true U.S. Open victory.
"It’s not like we get to choose what golf course we want to play in every week," Koepka said on Tuesday about his first major. "I can’t do anything that the wind didn’t blow. Finished off 16 under … I mean, what am I supposed to do? I mean great players like D.J., Rory, they missed the cut."
This disregard traces back to his amateur days. Koepka wanted to attend Florida, but the Gators didn’t offer him a scholarship, and despite being a three-time All-American at Florida State, he never made a Walker Cup team.
There’s not much media love, either. On Tuesday the interview center was packed for sessions with Spieth, McIlroy and Tiger Woods. There were just a handful of writers in attendance to listen to Koepka.
There’s even a detachment between Koepka and his fellow pros. Players respect his game, yet on a circuit that’s increasingly sociable, he is a lone wolf, a trait ingrained from his travels abroad after college. When he was sidelined for four months of action earlier this year, Kopeka said on Tuesday that only three fellow players—Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson—reached out. "It just feels like you're forgotten about quite a bit," he said. He hits the gym with Johnson and considers him a friend, but they’re far from inseparable.
Outwardly, Koepka will tell you this doesn't bother him. "I always feel like I’m overlooked. I couldn’t care less," Koepka said at Shinnecock. "It doesn’t bug me. I just kind of keep doing what I’m doing, keep plugging away, kind of hide behind closed doors sometimes, which is nice, kind of the way I’d like to keep it. Sometimes it’s kind of impossible."
In that same breath, he remembers every slight, every knock, no matter how small or trivial. "I guess ESPN or something like that on their Instagram page, someone was showing it to me, the day we won [at Shinnecock], they've got like Odell Beckham dunking a basketball," Koepka said at Carnoustie. "It's like, well, he should be able to. He’s like 6'2''. He’s got hops, we all know that, and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?"
The arrival of a second major hasn’t softened that sentiment.
"I mean, what am I supposed to say? I’m satisfied with that?" Koepka said. "You want to keep adding to the list and keep progressing."
It’s integral to his process, what keeps him engaged over the grind of the season. "I always try to find something where I feel like I’m kind of the underdog and kind of put that little chip on my shoulder," Koepka said. "You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do."
Which might be part of the problem, at least from a public-relations standpoint. The underdog narrative works when, you know, the entity is actually an underdog. Playing the "Nobody believes in us" card over and over wears thin.
There’s also his love, or lack thereof, with the sport, viewing it as his profession, not passion. "Golf is kind of boring, not much action," he once told Golf Digest. Considering golf, perhaps more than its sporting brethren, generates a zealous following, that might not play well with the audience. His reserve, allowing him to be composed and impassive during pressure situations, can be mistaken for aloofness, especially compared to the passionate displays seen by other players.
Outside of the U.S. Open, Koepka has won only once on the PGA Tour. The majors do have an amplified importance; nevertheless, it’s a fact that can’t be overlooked. Even his strength and power, features that have fueled his success, are attributed to his physicality rather than work ethic. Fans can relate to the corporeal appearances of Spieth, Thomas, McIlroy, Fowler, Phil Mickelson. Koepka looks like the guy who shoved you in your locker and snagged your lunch money.
However, that coldness can be thawed. Koepka’s still relatively new to golf’s upper class. It can take time to get comfortable with the heightened spotlight, to figure out how to connect, to let your guard down, to be you. And, no matter the depth of personality and character, excellence radiates a light that outshines all.
"I think that’s the big key," Koepka said. "As long as every tournament, every year, you’re getting better and better, that’s all that matters. I think that I’ve done a good job of that so far and just need to continue that. And the goal now is just to get to No. 1 and just keep winning majors, keep winning golf tournaments."
Bellerive’s set-up, in both construction and conditioning, are tailored to Koepka’s game. "Yeah, I always seem to play well at PGA Championships," Koepka said. "I don’t know what it is, whether it’s the way they set the golf course up, I’ve enjoyed it. I seem to play well every time, and it’s the last major you’re going to play for about seven months so you might as well finish on a high note."
Of course, with 11 top-15s at majors since 2014, there are few tracks that aren’t simpatico to his eye.
A win in St. Louis puts Koepka in rarefied territory, and into reach of an echelon occupied by the greats. In a sport filled with young stars, Brooks Koepka is among its constellation. Even if his brightness isn’t seen, or appreciated, yet.