BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Broadcasters gasped. Fans cheered. Even caddie Ricky Elliott was impressed. Brooks Koepka? He waved vaguely at the gallery after sinking a 40-foot putt and sauntered to the hole to retrieve the ball. He was one-under through one. He finished with a bogey-free, course-record 63. He said it was “disappointing” he hadn’t birdied either of the par-5s. “That would have been nice, to shoot 60,” he said.
Koepka has won three of the last eight major championships—the 2018 PGA, plus the last two U.S. Opens—and tied for second at the Masters last month. He leads the field with one round complete at Bethpage Black. A win this week would make him the only golfer in history to hold back-to-back titles in two majors simultaneously. It’s time to start believing what he has been telling people for two years: He is the best player in the world.
He has made history twice this week. On Thursday, he shot 63. But first, on Tuesday, Koepka—whose massive biceps can barely support the chip he carried on his shoulder for so long—was slighted and did not even notice it.
It happened in the hallway of the media center. Koepka arrived for his pre-tournament press conference and encountered several dozen reporters leaving the interview room. Tiger Woods’s press conference had just let out. A year ago, Koepka might have spent the session bemoaning how overlooked he felt. In fact, one year ago, he did just that: When he was not chosen for a pre-tournament press conference at the Tour Championship, he unloaded to Golf Digest, “[The media] has their guys they want to talk to. I’m not one of them and that’s fine. … Sometimes it does suck, but I’ve started to care less. Come Sunday, I won’t forget it when everyone wants to talk to me because I just won.”
Koepka has always fueled himself with the indifference—real or imagined—of others. As a teenager, he noted that his home-state Florida Gators did not recruit him to play in college. As an amateur, he filed away that he had not been asked to play in the Walker Cup. As a young pro, he seethed when he did not make the Presidents Cup team on points or as a captain’s pick. As a major champion, he took photos of Golf Channel “notable players” graphics that did not include him.
But on Tuesday he walked right by the haters and told the people who remained that he no longer needed their approval.
“I'm just trying to be me,” he said. “I think I'm doing a better job of that, letting you guys kind of into my life or not viewing you guys as the enemy, which I kind of did earlier on in my career. Now it's, 'Listen, this is who I am, and I'm not going to change for anybody. I'm just going to show you guys who I really am.'”
Koepka has spent the past two years asking the public to change how it views him. Somewhere along the way, he began to change how he views himself.
The transition from underdog to favorite can be so difficult that many athletes convince themselves they haven’t made it. Angels first baseman Albert Pujols has won two World Series and three MVP awards, but he will tell anyone within earshot that he was a 13th-round draft pick. Patriots receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola celebrated their second Super Bowl win, in 2017, by clutching each other and screaming, “We ain’t good enough! We can’t make any other team!”
Koepka has taken a different approach. It can be easy to view him as a meathead, getting swole in the gym with Dustin Johnson, but he thinks deeply about his place in the sport. Last June, 91 hours after winning his second straight U.S. Open win, he slumped in a chair in the caddie shack at the Travelers Championship, just south of Hartford. He was beginning to learn the rhythms of success, he explained. A champion fits in sleep wherever he can. A champion does a media tour. A champion shows up at the range on Wednesday of his first tournament after a victory, whether he needs to practice or not, so he can get the congratulations out of the way before Thursday. Since then he has learned more, about his swing and his putting stroke and his preference for playing tournaments a week before a major to keep himself sharp.
“It took some time,” he acknowledged as he climbed into his golf cart after his Thursday press conference. “It wasn’t as quick as people think. It wasn’t an adjustment period, but it’s been a learning process.”
As he has become a favorite—as he has learned to see himself as a favorite—he has also learned how to act like one.