FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Every legendary moment began with an origin story and Brooks Koepka’s is a tale of collective connections that have paved a generational path.
Growing up in South Florida, young Brooks took to every sport, from golf to roller hockey, but his first love was baseball. His father, Bob, described a second baseman who was turning double plays in tee-ball and regularly competed against older players.
Although he’d spend countless hours on the practice putting green at the Breakers West in Palm Beach, Florida, rapping shots across the surface from the time Bob Koepka put a plastic set of clubs in his hand at 2 years old, it wasn’t until he was 12 that he approached his father, a former college pitcher, with a plan to focus exclusively on golf.
“He made the right choice,” Bob Koepka conceded.
It was the first of countless choices Koepka made on a road that delivered him to a historic moment on Sunday at the PGA Championship, where he outlasted Dustin Johnson for a two-shot victory and his fourth major triumph in his last eight Grand Slam starts.
You know the deal, it takes a village; and Koepka’s brilliance has been pulled from an eclectic pot.
The earliest vestiges of the player who has become a golf iconoclast came late in his high-school career. Despite a solid resume, Koepka was lightly recruited by the game’s traditional powerhouses, a slight, however unintended, that fueled him.
“[Former University of Florida golf coach] Buddy Alexander would always look but never sent him a letter,” Bob Koepka recalled. “I told him, ‘Every time you play Florida, go kick their butt; at some point [Alexander] has got to come say something.’”
It was in the spring of 2009 when Trey Jones, the head golf coach at Florida State, first met Koepka.
“I remember saying he’s your problem child now,” Bob Koepka said with a laugh.
Chris Malloy, FSU’s assistant coach at the time, described a “string bean” with a uniquely direct approach for someone his age. He didn’t have the best grades and needed to fix that. He did. He also needed to control his emotions on the course. That took some time.
Malloy instituted a “five-second” rule, limiting the prodigy to how long he was allowed to hold a club after a bad shot before it had to be back in the bag. Violate the “five-second” rule and it was off to Doak Campbell Stadium to run the stairs.
“We spent a lot of Saturdays at Doak Campbell,” Malloy laughed. “We’d go at 6 a.m. after the team workout and I’d sit at the bottom with a trash can, we’d call it a puke can. He’s a tough kid.”
In retrospect, punishing a player who has now taken fitness to the extreme with exercise quickly produced diminishing results. Instead, Malloy changed to a team punishment concept when Koepka violated a rule and the young man’s distaste for collective retribution slowly began to have the desired effect on his on-course behavior.
The player who stalked 72 holes this week at Bethpage Black seemingly without a care in the world came by his indifference honestly. As difficult as it is for those who are now in awe of the aloof champion to believe, it wasn’t always that way for the bona fide hothead.
“Everything you see with Brooks is a learned behavior. None of this is natural for him. He has worked his ass off to do every part of that,” Malloy said. “He was a ball of flaming fire.”
When he took the path less traveled on the Challenge Tour, a secondary circuit in Europe that sent the aspiring professional to far-flung tournaments from Slovakia to Spain, it was legendary swing coach Pete Cowen who crossed Koepka’s path.
Although blessed with a monsoon of physical gifts, Koepka’s swing isn’t what an expert would deem technically flawless. But under Cowen’s experienced watch that began to change. While the instant analysis of Koepka’s victory at Bethpage Black will fixate on his ability to bludgeon the unrelenting layout into submission, it’s the nuances of a repeatable swing and a widely underappreciated short game that has transformed him from a curiosity into a consistent champion.
“Guys like Pete Cowen and myself have been able to give Brooks a lot,” said Graeme McDowell, who served as an early sounding board for Koepka on the European Tour.
In the spring of 2013 it was another chance encounter with swing coach Claude Harmon III that continued the process.
During their first meeting, Koepka told Harmon he thought he could be the No. 1 player in the world and win multiple majors. If those lofty expectations may have caused some to flinch, Harmon said Koepka embraced every step of the process.
Everything Harmon asked of Koepka he did, refining a swing that had proven world-class on the European Tour but still was rough around the edges when it came to the game’s most demanding tests.
“Brooks is a product of everybody that was a part of his life,” Harmon said. “He values the people around him and his team.”
The final piece of the puzzle that propelled Koepka to a Grand Slam stranglehold fell into place in the fall of 2016 when his friendship with Dustin Johnson led him to Joey Diovisalvi. Although he was no stranger to the gym, Koepka wanted to take his training to the next level, to a place where golfers rarely if ever go, and in Diovisalvi he found a kindred spirit.
Distance has always been an advantage in golf from the time the ancient Scots started hitting rocks with sticks, but for Koepka this was about more than the 36 drives he fearlessly launched over 300 yards this week. This was about cumulative strength and the ability to play shots the majority of players can’t hit, particularly from the shaggy rough that loomed around every corner at Bethpage.
“He was looking to make a change. He wanted to basically take his physicality to a place that would match his game,” Diovisalvi said. “He wanted more intensity in his program. He took it very seriously and began to understand the benefits of a much more intense routine.”
There will be those who believe that Koepka arrived a fully assembled champion when he won the 2017 U.S. Open for his major breakthrough, but that ignores so much.
The self-confidence and calm born from countless hours perfecting his craft was there during the final round when he limped to the 15th tee having allowed his seven-shot advantage to start the day to be slashed to a single stroke. But he was cast for these uncomfortable moments by a lifetime of reinforcement, both positive and otherwise.
Few, if any, stumble into greatness. There’s always an origin story, and for Koepka it’s a winding tale – from ill-tempered teenager to a globetrotting adult, who embraced being uncomfortable in order to condition himself for life’s biggest moments, to a four-time major champion. It’s never a single moment, it’s a collection of experiences and chance encounters that have made Koepka greater than the sum of his parts.
When he finally putted out for a nervy victory, Bob Koepka was there. So was Harmon. But even those who didn’t make the trip to Long Island were still with him.