Koepka did not have his A-game on Thursday at Pebble Beach, but he had what he always has: one of the game’s best major-championship minds.
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The U.S. Open is one round old, and Brooks Koepka still has not won. I know, I know. I’m as surprised as you are. Koepka shot a two-under 69, he is tied for 16th, and he gave us all a nice little gift Thursday. He showed us why he is who he is. You just had to pay attention.
There was Koepka, on the 18th tee, three-wood in hand. He did not have his A-game on this day, but he had what he always has: one of the game’s best major-championship minds. As he said later, every major he wins makes him feel better about the next one.
“You definitely get more comfortable,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence. There’s no doubt about that. It’s becoming easier and easier as I keep playing ’em.”
Koepka had started hot, with birdies on Nos. 1 and 3. On the par-3 5th, he got a little lucky: he put his tee shot in the rough, and his chip would have gone at least 10 feet past the hole if it hadn’t gone in the hole. He was four under through six holes. This was around the time when his game jumped in the ocean, leaving Koepka stranded on the course.
“It’s a battle if you’re not going to hit fairways, if you’re not going to hit greens,” Koepka said. “From 8 on in, I didn’t hit many (fairways) and I didn’t hit many greens.”
Still, there he was on 18, a survivor. Winning a major championship is not just about being the best player. It’s about what you do on the day when you’re clearly not the best player. Koepka never made double-bogey. He never let his struggles affect his mental approach. He chose three-wood, hit the ball, and immediately pointed right and yelled “Fore!”
The ball came to rest on a concrete cart path near the houses that line the 18th. And this is where the Koepka mind took over.
First, he convinced himself he was lucky.
“I try to find something positive, and try to spin it even when something negative happens,” he says. “Spin it that way: how lucky it was to stay in. It’s hard to explain my thought process. I don’t get too upset, don’t get too high.”
He knows he is spinning himself. It’s like all the slights that he uses for motivation: he is self-aware enough to understand he is using them for motivation. He uses his lack of publicity to motivate himself, but he also doesn’t seek publicity, because he doesn’t actually want the publicity; he wants to tell himself he has been slighted. It’s a wild game that he plays. He is both the magician and the audience.
Koepka arrived at the ball, and his mind moved on to the next task: figuring out how to play the shot. Logic and weekend golfers would have taken a drop. A lot of pros would have, too. But a lot of them would have been so annoyed by the errant tee shot that they wouldn’t have been thinking straight. Koepka just evaluated the situation and decided to leave the ball there.
“The only reason I didn’t drop it was because the ball would have been on a downhill slope (on the grass),” he said. “On the cart path it’s flat and my feet are above the ball. It seemed easier from where it was lying.”
Now the mind had two more tasks. The first: forget that just 18 months ago, he had a partially torn tendon in his left wrist. Hitting off a cart path is not nearly as hard for pros as it is for the rest of us. They aren’t in much danger of hitting it fat or thin like we are. But it can be physically painful, and for a guy who had a wrist injury, it can be daunting.
“It never flashed in my head,” Koepka said. “I was just thinking: How am I going to put it in the fairway?”
This is when the mind accomplished its final task: focusing on the swing. He hit the ball 217 yards down the middle of the fairway, short of the green. He gave himself a short birdie putt. He missed the putt. That annoyed him—but really, not that much.
Last month, Koepka opened the PGA with a 63 that could have been lower. Thursday, he opened the U.S. Open with a 69 that should have been higher. Both times, he knew it. If these majors really do get easier and easier for him, then let’s just wish the best of luck to everybody else.