U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka speaks softly and carries a big stick

BYBy Thomas Boswell
June 18, 2017
Brooks Koepka made three birdies in a row on the back nine to pull away from the field in the U.S. Open for his first major title. (Rob Schumacher/Usa Today Sports)

ERIN, Wis. — When Brooks Koepka tapped in his final putt to win the 117th U.S. Open by four shots and tie Rory McIlroy’s record of 16 under par in the ancient event, the 27-year-old may have had the most muted reaction in the history of humans who were still breathing. He gave two little fist pumps. Upon reflection, he added one more.

“That’s probably the most emotion I’ve ever shown,” Koepka said afterward. That? That was it? Ever? “What, you didn’t see that fist pump on 18?”

When this event ended, Koepka’s image might have been summed up — entirely incorrectly — by one of his quotes this past week when he said that nothing in golf “really gets me too worked up, whatever happens, bogey, double bogey, birdie, eagle, I mean, I’m pretty chill anyway.”

Hence, the notion that the gifted Koepka, from a long line of fine athletes, including a great uncle (Dick Groat) who was National League MVP, was some sort of Big Chill of the PGA Tour. An emotionless flat-liner, a good friend and workout partner of stoic world No. 1 player Dustin Johnson , man of few syllables, much less words. Koepka even said that Johnson had called him with encouragement Saturday night. “It was a long phone call,” he said. “For us, it was like two minutes.”

But about an hour after his final putt, as the size of his accomplishment sank in and everything it meant began to dig into Koepka, he conducted a remarkable long mass interview in which he opened up so much, was so frank and interesting, that the Man of No Emotion who won the U.S. Open was replaced by a vastly more interesting person — that is to say, the real Koepka.

“It’s taken me a long time to learn how to not try to win. I’ve been trying to win too badly. I feel like I’ve underachieved,” Koepka said of his four years on the PGA Tour after spending three years playing tours around the world. “I put myself in contention so many times, but I never quite came through. I’m not a big fan of losing.

“I just couldn’t stand the fact that I had only won once” on Tour, he said.

So the Koepka who, in a golf cart leaving the last green, put his hands over his face, pulled his hat over his eyes and seemed to melt with relief is a more accurate picture of the golf champion of America.

This past week, Koepka said, “I don’t think I ever got nervous. I just stayed in the moment. . . . I didn’t think about hugging the trophy. . . . You’re here to play golf for 18 holes. . . . I don’t think I mentioned ‘winning’ to my caddie all week.”

To say that this version of the golfing Koepka is new is a grand understatement. This guy is so freshly minted he may still be hot from the smelt.

Speaking of an early-season slump this year, Koepka said, “I was grinding all day every day, in the gym every day. I just couldn’t get my mind to free up. But I’m past that now.”

The golf life is perhaps not something you would wish on a friend. The difference between “being in the moment” for four days, never having that “fraction of a second slip in focus” that leads to a double bogey is separated from a state of mind-clamp, of near golf desperation by a mental membrane so slim and fragile that golfers don’t even want to think about it. Instead, they say things like, “I’m past that now.” Until the next time they aren’t.

As recently as 2014, Koepka said he called his manager before the final day of a European event (which he ended up winning) and said, “I don’t want to play. I want to go home.” Now, he says, “I don’t even know what it was. I’d played so many weeks in a row. It really got to me is all I can say.”

So let’s hold the talk about being “chill.” That’s an emotional state that young golfers battle to reach, then maintain precariously. That why they cover their eyes, pull down their hats in moments of glory as their girlfriends pat a shoulder.

Right now, there may not be any sport in America where you can be as good as Koepka — almost everyone in golf thinks that the ex-Florida State star, ranked No. 22 in the world, is a major figure of the game’s future — and yet have so many genial, obsessed, talented players of your generation, your own buddies, who are constantly trying to grind you to dust by their sheer numbers. They’re the age that got full-blown “Tiger Slam” Eldrick Woods at their most impressionable age.

If this Open illustrated any general trend in golf, it is the depth of gifted players who stand just below the megastar ranks of Johnson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth . This was their U.S. Open to step forward and demonstrate the broad sweep of 20-something talent that fills the game. The broad fairways here and enormous length (7,741 yards, longest in a major championship) allowed them to show their power and raw if sometimes not quite polished gifts.

“I loved this course as soon as I saw it. It was kind of ‘bombs away,’ ” said Koepka, who averaged 322.1 yards off the tee, seventh longest in the field.

Even though the 15-man leader board did not at any point Sunday contain a player who had won a major title, the field still had a mind-boggling seven who finished at 10 under par or lower. In the first 116 U.S. Opens, there had been two. In part, that is due to rain and soft scoring conditions. In part, 11-year-old Erin Hills, even in stiff winds on the last day, probably never played tough enough to have hosted an Open in the first place.

But mostly, the phenomenal scores pointed to the wave of new stars, such as Koepka, who sometimes obscure each other. For example, before Koepka gave his post-round news conference, he was introduced by a USGA official as “Bruce.”

We won’t be mixing these guys up much longer.

On Sunday, young players such as runner-up Hideki Matsuyama , who shot a final-round 66, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas all had moments in contention. They are 25, 28 and 24 years old and ranked Nos. 4, 9 and 13 in the world. Si Woo Kim, who lurked all week, is 21. Xander Schauffele, 23, may have started the week ranked No. 352, but he won’t be for long after finishing 10 under for fifth place.

“Those guys are going to have amazing careers. The younger generation that’s coming up right now, it’s really impressive,” Koepka said. “So it’s getting that much harder to win ’em.”

Yet win ’em is exactly what Koepka says he intends to do. And unlike most players after a first major, he’s willing to say it. “My goals? They’re pretty high. At the beginning of this year, I felt I needed to win multiple times and a major,” Koepka said. “I think I can win multiple times a year. This is major No. 1 and hopefully many more to come.”

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.