PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Brooks Koepka has been called boring so many times that it’s a wonder anybody calls him at all. Yet this week he had to change his phone number because he suddenly received a bunch of unwanted calls and text messages. I hope he answered at least once, and I hope the caller learned what has become obvious to anybody paying attention: Koepka is one of the most entertaining people in his sport.
This is true on the course, obviously—Koepka is trying for his third straight U.S. Open this week, and he will go for his third straight PGA Championship next year at Harding Park in San Francisco. But it’s true when Koepka sits behind a microphone, too. He used to be cautious, and he may have been uncomfortable; at the very least, he didn’t seem to try all that hard. But now Koepka is funny, he is revealing, he is cutting, and he is entirely himself.
The same quality that hindered him in public two years ago is helping him now: He doesn’t worry about what people think. For a while, that meant some awkwardly short answers. Now it means he says whatever he wants to say, critics and sponsors be damned.
At his Tuesday press conference here, Koepka dropped gems all over the place. Somebody asked about players who complain about the USGA, and Koepka said “They’re not playing good enough.” He said if he were another player and saw B. KOEPKA on a leaderboard, “I’d think, ‘Really? Not again.’” He called the Pebble Beach rough “very thick, very juicy.” He said just last week, he was working out and a guy in the gym geeked out because Dustin Johnson had just been in there, apparently unaware that four-time major champion Brooks Koepka was right in the gym at that moment.
Koepka said he watches the Golf Channel at night to “see what Frank (Nobilo) and David (Duval) and Rich (Lerner) are saying”—a clear, intentional and hilarious shot at Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, who questioned Koepka’s mettle earlier this year. Koepka has also retweeted a picture of Chamblee with a clown’s nose.
Whether Koepka is right about Chamblee is beside the point. Koepka is not, by any fair definition, boring. And while he still pulls out the chip-on-the-shoulder bit, he doesn’t get testy about it these days. He is mostly amused by it. He saw that he was not on a U.S. Open preview montage, despite being that two-time defending champion, and he just noted how ridiculous that was. He said “somebody probably got fired, or should.” (He said it so offhandedly that I don’t think he was actually demanding a firing.)
If Koepka wins this week, he will be the first man to win three straight U.S. Opens since Willie Anderson at the turn of the 20th century. Koepka did not pretend to know anything about Willie Anderson. He would be the first man to win any major three straight times since Peter Thomson went back-to-back-to-back at the British in the 1950s.
To understand how amazing this is—and how hard it will be for Koepka to pull off—consider two others who tried. In 1989, Curtis Strange won his second straight U.S. Open. He was 34 and one of the best players in the world. He never won another PGA Tour event.
In April 2003, Tiger Woods arrived at Augusta National with a chance to win a third straight Masters. He was the favorite, of course; Woods was always the favorite back then. Somebody asked where the achievement would rank in his career. He said it would be right up there with “the Slam”—his Tiger Slam of four straight majors in 2000-2001.
Yes: That means, according to Woods himself, a Brooks Koepka win would rival the Tiger Slam.
Woods opened the 2003 Masters by shooting a 76. He followed with a 73. He finished 15th but was never really in contention.
Koepka is not Strange. Strange’s fire burned so hot that it burned out quickly; Koepka is a master at caring just enough, but not too much.
Koepka is also not Woods. Tiger was on his own level. But this week will provide an interesting window into just how dominant Koepka really is.
Pebble Beach does not set up ideally for him. One of his strengths is his prodigious length and control of his driver, but he says he may only hit driver four times per round this week. The greens are poa annua, which are not his favorite. The winds on the Monterey Peninsula are reminiscent of a British Open, which has been Koepka’s weakest major; he struggled in the wind on Sunday of this year’s PGA at Bethpage Black. Pebble’s small greens will require precision more than power.
The truly great ones find ways to turn seeming disadvantages into advantages. Jack Nicklaus always liked when other players complained about a course setup because they were effectively eliminating themselves. Koepka said this week that he can’t remember a bad setup. He also said he thinks a shorter course helps him because he can hit 3-wood when others hit driver and he can hit irons when they hit 3-wood.
He knows this is just a mental game he is playing with himself, but he also knows it can work. It would be a hell of a thing to see him win a third straight U.S. Open, then plop on the couch and see if Frank and Dave and Rich are impressed.