Brooks Koepka feels like a winner, the outcome of Sunday’s Hero World Challenge notwithstanding.
His T-9 finish becomes almost a sidebar, as the calendar prepares to flip to 2022. Where he is going seems far more important. He’s headed back to the future.
You remember the beastly version of Koepka from 2018 to 2019. He won five tournaments, had 10 top 2s and 15 top 10s. He won a second U.S. Open in succession, won back-to-back PGAs, had his too-cool-for-school swagger and earned a reputation as the game’s ultimate big-game hunter. He was at the top of his game, right? Well, no, wrong.
“That wasn't peak,” Koepka said. “Just wait.”
For a long time, Koepka was one of the few PGA Tour players without an equipment deal. The bag he used to do all of that damage in 2018-2019 was his own, cluttered with clubs from different manufacturers, sticks with different characteristics.
But more recently, Koepka has come under the Srixon umbrella. He has been getting to know a new bag of bats, as well as a new ball — and they are getting along famously.
“I'm just more excited seeing the equipment than anything,” Koepka said. “It's been very, very easy, which is nice,” Koepka said. “Everything's reacting the way I want it to, so I'm pleased with that. But I'm still not kicking on all cylinders. It's definitely a step in the right direction, so I'm very happy.”
At the same time, the 31-year old has been re-introducing himself … to himself. The past two seasons have been an odd collection of incidents and accidents, and a series of stops and starts for Koepka. There was a torn tendon in his left wrist, followed by a partially torn tendon in his left knee. Then came a torn labrum, the result of compensating for the knee.
That was followed by a slip on wet concrete that caused a re-aggravation to the left knee, and more down time. A withdrawal from The Players earlier this year was caused by a strained right knee. In March, Koepka had surgery on his right knee to deal with a kneecap displacement and ligament damage. And, ah yes, there was the problem with his neck at the Workday and then another wrist injury that kept him out of the Tour Championship.
“It's been one of those things the last, I don't know, it feels like the last two years have been a struggle except for the majors or WGCs,” Koepka said. “I think four top-20s in the last two years that are outside of WGCs, it's not been very good. Just trying to figure it out. “
Along the way, Koepka made some adjustments, consciously and otherwise, to make ends of his game meet. Along the way, he just about forgot what his game is supposed to look like.
“I told some of the guys, it was just all me, I was swinging it poorly,” Koepka said. “So it's tough to blame it on anything else. But now that I've got my swing under somewhat control — it’s not 100 percent, but it's really, really close — we're figuring it out.
He added: “Day by day it's always getting a little bit better where it feels kind of back to, I wouldn't say normal yet, but it's getting there. A lot of it was just the little idiosyncrasies that your body just makes up for trying to not — I was never trying to stay off my right leg, but it just kind of naturally happens. I notice it, even when I'm standing certain ways, I kind of stand on my left leg a little bit more.“
Koepka has had input from putting coach Jeff Pierce, and observations from his tour-playing younger brother, Chase Koepka, who was his caddie during the week at Albany Golf Club. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men have helped put things back together again.
“My stance was the big thing,” Koepka said. “My feet were about a foot wider than where they are now. So I just feel I narrow the stance, I've got more control, my body's not sliding back on my right foot so I don't have to push off. It's been a lot more consistent.”
At the same time, Koepka is getting the hang of the new equipment. That’s not to suggest he has been scuffling and scraping in 2021. When able, he’s still a handful. He won the Waste Management back in February, tied for second at Workday, was T-2 at the PGA and had eight top 10s during the year before the Hero.
But as 2021 ends, Koepka is beginning to feel more like himself, if not better. The upswing began with his beat-down of Bryson DeChambeau in The Match, where Koepka won four holes and polished off DeChambeau in nine holes of a 12-hole exhibition. In the Bahamas, Koepka was able to give the good vibes a more authentic test, compete against an elite field of 20 players, pursue a sizable purse, feel a pulse.
“It's one thing to try it out on like a 12-hole exhibition,” Koepka said. “But when you come out here under the gun and really try to shape shots and a little more serious, seeing the ball react the way I want it to, seeing the wedges, the driver, I've been so pleased with it and very happy.”
As a result, Koepka is looking forward to a fresh start in 2022. In the past, he has been one to put the clubs away and take time off. But has no plans for a long sabbatical in the weeks ahead. He indicated he would continue to work on his game and continue his build-back-better program.
“Trying to find it, man,” Koepka said. “That's kind of why I'm playing, just trying to get reps. I had enough time off in March and April and all the other months I missed, so I'll be alright.”
Or maybe, he’ll be even better.