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  • A win at Portrush would be another significant step for Brooks Koepka’s climb up the ladder of history. It would also be something new: a feel-good victory.
By Michael Rosenberg
July 16, 2019

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Brooks Koepka finally found a crowd that will cheer every time he walks past. They will celebrate the man that Koepka suggested can become a “legend” with a British Open win this week, unless he already is: His caddy, Ricky Elliott.

Elliott grew up in the area. Elliott said at the PGA that he wasn’t even sure Koepka knew he was from Portrush, but that was just Elliott playing two shots in every good caddie’s bag: making a quick joke, and deflecting attention away from himself. Of course Koepka knew. The world’s No. 1 golfer is making his first trip to Northern Ireland, and this week he has bounced around the area that shaped Elliott. Fewer than 8,000 people live here. It may seem like they all know Elliott. The question is how well they will get to know Koepka.

Almost anybody who has attended a major championship in the past year got to see Koepka at his best. His last five results, going back to the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills:

Win
T-39th
Win
T-2nd
Win
2nd

That is absurd. That is Tiger-esque. Even Tiger Woods knows it. Woods said Tuesday that he texted Koepka after the recent U.S. Open, to congratulate Koepka on another incredible finish, and he asked if he could play a practice round with Koepka here, to soak up some of Elliott’s local knowledge.

“I’ve heard nothing,” Woods said, chuckling.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Thanks to Elliott, Koepka has a chance to do something this week that he has not quite managed to do: win in feel-good fashion. The story of his first major victory, the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, was that the course was not U.S. Open-worthy, the scores were too low, and part of the proof was that some guy named Brooks Koepka won. (This argument has not aged well.) When he won his second major, at Shinnecock Hills, the story was his back-to-back wins, sure, but also that the USGA “lost” the golf course on Saturday.

At Koepka’s third major win, the PGA at Bellerive, he went from unfairly perceived as an automaton to unfairly perceived as a villain: if he had just wilted like a normal human, Woods would have won his first major in 10 years.

And at Koepka’s fourth major, the PGA at Bethpage, he sucked most of the drama out of the weekend with his first two rounds, then was razzed thoroughly on Sunday.

This would be different. This would be a win for Elliott. It would also be another significant step in Koepka’s climb up the ladder of history. So far, Koepka has won the two majors that best suit his game, the PGA and U.S. Open. He has not won the Masters or British Open, the two majors that require the most creativity and imagination.

As Koepka said of his practice rounds here: “Every time I’m over a golf ball, I see about 20 different shots you can play.”

He says he loves that, and he should. There is a popular gripe that Koepka is a walking muscle playing boring golf, but he is actually one of the brightest and mentally toughest players in the world. He says his short game was “a one” out of 10 when he started working with Pete Cowen, and now it’s a “four,” but he has exceptional touch around the greens. When he said Tuesday that his goal this week is to avoid the bunkers it was classic Koepka: the logic is simple, but how many guys will lose sight of it this week and take an overly aggressive line?

Koepka arrived at his press conference unshaven, relaxed, and with a few quips. He offered a new explanation for why he plays better in majors than regular PGA Tour events: he actually practices for them. Generally, he said, “If you see me on TV, that’s when I play golf.”

This is of course an exaggeration, but it’s a funny one. Someday, golf fans will fully appreciate Koepka—not just as a champion, but as a character on the game’s ongoing story.

In a way, Koepka may be golf’s Novak Djokovic. Djokovic arrived after most tennis fans had fallen in love with Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal; nobody was looking for a third option, but there he was. This is a preposterous statement, but it’s true: Djokovic had to win 10 grand-slam events before a lot of people would even consider that he might be the best player of his generation. And a lot of them are still reluctant. But now Djokovic has won 16—just four fewer than Federer and two fewer than Nadal. We might look back at him as the greatest player in the sport’s history.

Every golfer of this generation suffers, in the public imagination, from following Woods. But Koepka also suffers because Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth had emerged as irresistible young stars before he did, and Dustin Johnson was the long, dominant guy, and Rickie Fowler was the flashy, cool golfer, and Justin Thomas brought his own flair … we weren’t looking for another option, but there he was.

Koepka made it pretty clear Tuesday that being overlooked does not fuel him like it once did. He is, he said, comfortable with who he is, and what he has done. He arrived here thinking only about what he might do. He has said that at any given major, 35 or so players are capable of winning. He is near the top of that list, and he will continue to be, and he knows it.

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Eagle (-2)
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