Having to limp from doctor to doctor, from plasma treatment to plasma treatment — anywhere he could to find relief from persistent pain in his knee and hip — Brooks Koepka had fallen into “a dark place.”
What this meant to his rivals on the PGA Tour was a break from competing against the man who had become a Majors Machine when at the top of his game.
But it would not last long.
The most competitive, determined, unflappable athlete in the sport announced “I’m back” last Sunday, not by gradually rounding his game into form, but by going from zero to 100.
Koepka’s confidence was affected
Koepka, a Jupiter, Florida, resident, rebounded from missing three consecutive cuts for the first time in his career not by just making the cut, or by just contending, but by coming from five strokes back to start the final round of the Phoenix Open and carding a 6-under-65 to win the event by one stroke.
Koepka, 30, made it known Sunday he’s returning to the top of his game, and just in time for a year where his specialty, the majors, are back on the PGA Tour schedule.
“There was a period maybe for about two months where I just questioned whether I was ever going to be the same, whether I was even going to be somewhat remotely the same golfer that I ever was,” said Koepka, who once won four majors in a two-year span.
“A lot of tears, questioning yourself, and in dark places mentally. You’ve got to come out of that.”
And confidence is not something Koepka has lacked since he became a Majors Whisperer. Even knowing his game was bruised, Koepka still trolled Dustin Johnson and the rest of the field entering the final round of last year’s PGA Championship figuring he could will himself to another title.
That one didn’t work out, with Koepka shooting a 74 and falling from fourth to 29th.
It was one year ago this week that Koepka relinquished his 38-week stranglehold on the top spot on the World Golf Rankings. His gradual slide landed him at No. 13 a week ago, his lowest ranking in nearly four years, before climbing one spot this week. Koepka’s eight missed cuts in 20 PGA Tour events since the start of the 2020 season are two fewer than his previous four years combined.
Since he started dominating majors, Koepka admittedly has had a different approach toward non-majors. Sunday’s win has evened that score: four majors, four non-majors.
But having been humbled the last year or so, all Koepka needed was a taste, no matter the event, to recapture that hunger.
“I miss that pressure,” he said. “It’s what I live for. I live for those moments where you got to close, you got to hit some quality shots, quality putts. I don’t know, I just like showing off, I guess.”
Brooks Koepka reacts after making an eagle at the par 4 17th hole during the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. (Photo: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports)
The road back to the top
The shot that crowned the comeback was on the 334-yard par-4 17th. After his drive landed 32 yards from the pin, Koepka’s chip took a couple of bounces before rolling into the cup for an eagle and a two-shot lead, which he didn’t relinquish.
Talk about a “show off.”
Koepka raised his club, pumped his fist and waved to the limited crowd after holing out the chip.
“I like the way I finished that off,” he said about his first win on tour in the last 18 months. “I haven’t been in contention in God knows how long, so to actually hit golf shots like I’m accustomed to seeing when the pressure is on, it’s a good feeling.”
For Koepka. Not for the rest of the field.
The lowest point for Koepka was at the Memorial in July, when he shot a final-round 80, the second-worst 18-hole score of his career. That tournament was sandwiched by two missed cuts.
“I was in excruciating pain,” he said. “I was being told that my knee was still the same. The frustration of just trying to play and knowing I’m not myself, knowing I’m not even close to what I’m capable of doing (and) I can’t compete. … I’m trying to compete, but I just can’t. I can’t swing the golf club like I want to.”
Koepka refused to take time off until he had no choice, breaking from mid-August to mid-October. Now, he knows that stubbornness was not the best way to handle the situation.
“I just don’t like to quit,” he said. “Just battle through it, and I figured it would go away, to be honest with you, and I was completely wrong.”
Brooks Koepka is stretched out on the 12th hole by physical therapist Marc Wahl during the second round of the 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park on August 07, 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Last year’s ‘horrific’ pain
Koepka’s return is timely considering the most important stretch of the schedule, the Masters through the British Open, is approaching. There will be tournaments leading up to the Masters, such as the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens in March, but Koepka, like all champions, measures his success by the majors. And nobody was close to him during the stretch from the 2017 U.S. Open through the 2019 British Open when Koepka entered 10 majors; winning four, finishing second twice and placing in the top 10 eight times.
Even last year, as he was dealing with the pain and said shots when his knee flexed, like those from the bunker, were “horrific,” he managed to finish seventh in the November Masters.
But that was followed by three missed cuts before sending a message Sunday. A message that Xander Schauffele hopes to heed.
Schauffele, ranked No. 4 in the world, has four PGA Tour titles. He tied for second in Phoenix, his eighth runner-up finish since his last victory in 2019.
“I think Brooks is a great example for me,” Schauffele said. “He hasn’t been in great form, missed a few cuts, and comes out and wins. So, there is something to that, something to his recipe, and he’s definitely figured it out.”
Tom D’Angelo is a columnist for the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA Today Network.