ROCHESTER, NY – Brooks Koepka pulled into the Oak Hill Country Club parking lot at 1:10 p.m. Sunday, a minute behind his partner Victor Hovland at the 2:30 tee time. Koepka leaned to his right, rested an elbow on the center console and pulled his left wrist on the steering wheel of his venerable SUV. He pulled into a custom parking lot with a sign honoring his 2018 and ’19 PGA Championship wins. He pulled back, straightened her up, pulled her forward, and put her in park.
Then Kopka walked the way Kopka walked. Impossibly unhurried. Shoulders pressed back. He never wanted the world to think he was trying to get anywhere.
In the long run, this style from Koepka has produced several Championship Sundays. He was the one everyone was waiting for. He was the last one to come. When the broadcast cut to a live scene of The Man arriving on the scene, he was greeted by a backpedaling camera guy who captured his every step.
However, in recent years? We are used to not seeing him.
Sunday’s round with Hovland started in front of a large gallery just like the old days. Koepka hit his opening tee shot and was on the walk. After an opening bogey, Koepka took about 30 full seconds to see the second hole, pull the ball out of the cup and walk off the green. No. His tee shot at 3 followed a stroll pulled straight out of a John Woo movie.
As he has done for most of his career, Koepka did what he wanted on Sunday. A glacial front nine produced a 1-under 34. A heated back nine saw him and Hovland trade blows, the rivalry boiling over, speeding things up. Koepka’s gait moved him across the ground, under control, those shoulders pushed back even further. 3-under 67 is 2-under 33, just like that, a new sign for a parking space.
Koepka was the 2023 PGA champion.
Everything that happened in Oak Hill this weekend went according to Koepka’s schedule. It had been a while since he’d said it, and in some ways, it felt fitting for a player returning from oblivion. In dark times, it looked like his playing days, known for the unfortunate company of injured seniors, might be over. Such a fate would have been cruel. He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest players in modern golf history. Rochester’s win makes him just the third golfer in the 21st century to win five majors. The others are Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, two others who know what it’s like to go to the edge and return.
After winning four majors in 2018 and ’19, Koepka tore his patella tendon in August 2019 and suffered a groin injury in 2020. Then, in March 2021, a terrible injury occurred. A skid at home left Koepka on the floor with a dislocated knee. He tried to put the knee back in place, but instead fractured his knee cap, tore his medial patellofemoral ligament, and pointed his knee and foot in different directions. Even as Koepka tried to play through it, a series of surgeries followed.
All of this added to Koepka’s career disruption. Is that why he joined LIV Golf and loaded his bank account with that advance? Yes, probably. We got our first clue in “Full Swing,” a Netflix documentary chronicling the 2022 season in professional golf.
There are some things you don’t see, and this is one of them. Koepka has long been a star with a well-crafted, highly accurate image. Full appearance. All Nike from head to toe. optional kicks. Dan. Dimples. stem. Biceps. Actress wife. Happy to show himself cooler than the shmucks on the PGA Tour. Happy to suggest he is a true professional athlete, golfer.
The documentary was stunning. Episode 2 focuses on Koepka. Or at least this wounded, broken version of him. Times are dark and hair is gray. He was physically and emotionally broken.
“It’s like, I tasted it, didn’t I?” Koepka said of the past victory. “I want it now. That’s all I want,” he said.
It is not clear whether Koepka is questioning only her body or herself as well.
On Sunday evening, Wanamaker stood next to the trophy and was asked about it.
“It’s hard—very hard to explain,” he replied. “You can’t understand how hard it is to go. I mean, it’s a lot worse than I let you, let everyone else. Maybe only five, six people knew the extent of it, and that was – it was difficult.
For nearly two years, that was Koepka’s world. A few months ago the swelling in his knee went down.
So, yes, whether you particularly care for him or not, last week was pretty interesting. Koepka opened Thursday with a 2-over 72, which he said was “the worst I’ve shot in a long time.” He then responded with a 66 in the second round to jump back into the mix. On a rain-soaked Saturday, on a day when only nine players in the field broke even, he shot his second straight 66 to take a one-shot lead into the final round.
Back in the day, Koepka would have undoubtedly loved going to Sunday. But these days are different. Last month at Augusta National, Koepka announced a return to form, leading the Masters team after the second and third rounds. However, it ended with a fourth-round 75 and a congratulatory handshake for Jon Rahm.
“He hadn’t been in that position for a while and it showed,” said Ricky Elliott, Koepka’s caddy.
Entering this Sunday, it’s unclear how much Koepka-of-Old still has.
But it was soon answered.
After going 1-over on the front nine at Oak Hill in the first three days of the PGA (7-under on the back), Koepka birdied Nos. 2, 3 and 4 to build a three-shot lead on Sunday. For afternoon broadcast. From there, the pending decision already felt like a foregone conclusion.
Well, that is, until the sixth tee, when Koepka opted for driver instead of a 3-wood and drove one into the perfect bog. He took the bogey and followed it with another, leaving the door open for the others.
Howland was still alive. So did Scotty Scheffler and others. Cameron Smith was blitzing the course and going downhill. These guys appear on the scene when Koepka retreats from it. This was not lost on Koepka’s team.
“You only need an average of six months here and guys will fly for you like everybody else is now,” Elliott said. “If you’re not successful, you’re not really relevant, are you?”
Elliott has worked at the Kopka since the 2013 PGA at Oak Hill. Then, Koepka paired with Woods on Sunday. At one point that morning, Elliott had to nudge Koipka and tell him to stop looking at Woods and focus on his own game. After all this time, Koepka wandered around unconcerned.
“I have to be slow,” Koepka said Sunday, describing his style in these conditions. “I have to take my time and really evaluate things. I’m not thinking about my hands shaking or my heart rate going up. I’m not thinking about the next shot. I’m thinking about what’s going on.
This is why Koipka remained unchanged, no. Whether rolling in a birdie putt on 10th, or leaving two clubs short on the par-3 11th, or no. Despite rolling in another birdie at 12, he played his round and walked often. Alone, leave a trail of well-pressed footprints and dip saliva.
As Hovland tried to push into the mix, Koepka no. A birdie on 14 and a no. A parallel in 15 matched both. On the 16th, young Hovland blinked. A drive into the fairway bunker on the right ended dangerously into a high grass front. The roles were reversed and Koepka believed he could have taken his medication, played it safe, and stepped up to stay in the fight. This is one of the reasons why he succeeded in these five things. But Hovland? He’s 25. And he swings a perfect 9-iron, embeds the ball in the bunker wall, then puts his chin in his fist and wonders what he’s thinking.
Hovland left with a double bogey. Koepka left with a four-shot lead.
“He wasn’t going to give you anything, and I didn’t feel like I gave him anything until I was 16,” Hovland said.
And it was. Koepka finished the tournament with a 9-under 271, two shots clear of Hovland and Scheffler. His victory came 1,463 days after his last major win – the 2019 PGA at Bethpage. Back then, Koepka looked invincible. Over time, his body proved otherwise.
However, Sunday didn’t end in tears or a broken Koopa for all to see. He mostly played it cool. Some things cannot be changed.
That dynamic, at this point, is inevitable when it comes to Koepka. He is now the first LIV player to win a major and this is part of his story.
On number 9, a fan yelled, “Let’s go Vic! Brooks will choke! ” and a glare from Elliott. On number 13, another said “Get in the water!” After a Koepka tee shot, draw another Elliot glare. No. On the 17th, a voice on the green called out, “Sellout!” Koepka finished with a bogey.
“I hear everything,” Koepka said. “I don’t care. I mean, that’s the game, right?
Koepka’s lone crack on the outside was during his walk from the 18th green to the scoring tent. The 33-year-old is expecting a first-time father and has a lot going on in his life. On the way to signing his card, it all settled down and he swallowed some emotion.
“That’s what I accomplished,” Koepka recalled an hour later, recalling the walk. “Excuse my language, but this is all I have to go through. Who knows. No one knows all the pain.
With that feeling, as only he can, Koepka ended his Sunday.
Sixth player to win three PGA Championships. Others: Walter Hagen (6), Jack Nicklaus (5), Woods (4), Gene Sarason (3) and Sam Snead (3). The hardest part of stopping Koepka’s play has always been the slowness of history through it. He had every right to be bitter about it.
But now Koepka has a place to be. Next, she is scheduled for a LIV event in Washington DC this weekend and then the US Open in Los Angeles in mid-June. He will get there at his own pace. As of 9:30 p.m. Sunday, the white Escalade was the only one left on the lot.
(Top photo: Michael Reeves/Getty Images)