Golf

Time to believe in Brooks Koepka, says David Livingstone

The vulnerability that almost cost Brooks Koepka the PGA Championship on Sunday was perhaps the human touch that could win him a place in our hearts and convince America to give him a bit of love.

Had he won by 10 shots, he’d merely have burnished his ‘Boring Brooks’ tag and his achievement would have been met by yawns all round.

After all, for three-and-a-half rounds, he was the muscle-bound giant who made everyone around him, even big, brawny Dustin Johnson, look like seven-stone weaklings.

This was meant to be the best players in the world going toe to toe, but it wasn’t a fair fight.

Then everything changed, as it sometimes does, on the back nine on Sunday and the pressure of top-class sport shrunk a man before our eyes.

When Koepka stood on the 14th tee, having butchered the previous hole to make his third bogey in a row, the giant was suddenly a little lost boy.

He heard the roars for a birdie from the hole ahead and the chants of “DJ, DJ”, and Koepka was, by his own admission, in a state of shock.

That state of mind worsened when he finally got around to hitting his tee shot and flew the green. Another bogey simply fed the fans’ frenzy for DJ.

However, as we now know, Koepka, at this point, also fed the sizeable chip on his shoulder and turned a negative into a positive.

He fired up his own inner resentment about the insults and lack of respect which had plagued him over the last year.

Like the day at last year’s PGA when as back-to-back US Open champion he shot an opening 69 and then discovered no one in the media centre wanted to speak to him.

Like the time in the same championship five years ago when then Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson didn’t know who Koepka was and mistook him for a club professional.

Like the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee accusing Koepka of “reckless self-sabotage” for losing weight as part of a “vanity” project.

And above all, the assertion by the same Chamblee that Koepka “wasn’t tough”.

“That p****d me off. That really p****d me off,” was how the champion put it on Sunday night.

Thinking back and considering the emotional baggage he was already dragging to the 15th tee, it’s surprising he had the energy to notice the fans chanting for DJ and calling for the leader to choke, but he did: “It was perfect timing because I was just thinking, okay, all right I’ve got everybody against me. Let’s go.”

Makes you wonder if Koepka’s ever heard of Millwall Football Club, because ‘no one likes me, I don’t care’ suited his mood as he smashed a great drive up the 15th.

Certainly the sentiment worked, because the safe par that followed allowed Brooks to regain his composure while Dustin was losing his up ahead.

The leader’s position was still under threat but, crucially, it was once again under control.

Koepka’s sense of relief at the end paved the way for the most interesting press conference he’s ever provided.

That, in turn, provoked a sense of relief amongst golf writers who’ve waited a long time for Brooks to open up and talk freely.

One reporter told me last year: “Koepka’s great for a scorecard but no good for my notebook.”

Perhaps that will now change because here is a major champion who deserves respect and curiosity in equal measure.

The media has a responsibility to discover more about Brooks Koepka the person as well as the golfer and work out why he’s so quickly become the real deal.

I’ve been interested in him for a number of years because of my friendship with his long-time coach Claude Harmon.

Time and again in major championships in his early years, Koepka would build a great run of scores only to unravel spectacularly with double, triple, and, once, quadruple bogeys.

Par was not Brooks’ speciality, so, for me, any assessment of his performance tended to be a comparison of birdies versus bogeys over the week.

For the first couple of years, dropped shots dominated, but the balance began to shift in 2015 when he made 17 birdies in each of three majors and limited his bogeys to single figures in two.

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By 2017, when he won his first major – the US Open – he made 21 birdies over the week and dropped only five shots.

That, of course, was the gamechanger for Koepka and events moved on swiftly from there.

Before Sunday’s final round, I wondered what had caused the transformation from inconsistency to major championship domination, so I texted Claude Harmon to ask if there was a special ingredient outside of hard work.

His reply was simple and straightforward: “I met Brooks in 2013 when he was Peter Uihlein’s room-mate, when he was still on the Challenge Tour. When I asked him what his goals were, he said, ‘I think I can be good enough to get to number one in the world and win multiple majors’.”

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