ST. LOUIS — Brooks Koepka was playing a practice round during the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla when Tom Watson approached him.
“Mind if I play a few holes with you?” asked the legend who would captain the U.S. squad at the following month’s Ryder Cup.
As they walked down the fairway, Watson turned to Koepka and asked, “So what club do you play out of?”
“Brooks goes, ‘Dude, I’m not a club pro,’” recalled Koepka’s coach, Claude Harmon III.
Watson asked how he got into the tournament.
“Well, I finished T-4 in the U.S. Open and I’m like 70th in the world,” Koepka replied.
Four years and two U.S. Open victories later, Koepka is still the most successful nobody in golf. But by close of business Saturday, Koepka had a two-shot lead at the PGA Championship, on the cusp of winning his third major title in his last six attempts.
Thursday, he shot 69 in the opening round. The number of interview requests he received from the news media after the round: zero.
He waited around a few minutes before saying to Harmon, “Not surprising. Let’s get out of here.”
When he arrived at Bellerive Friday morning, he told his team, “I’m going to shoot low today and you watch, everyone will want to talk to me.”
He shot 63, tying the tournament record. Predictably enough, the interview requests followed.
It’s not the first time that Koepka has used a perceived slight as fuel. It’s not even the first time he’s done it this summer.
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During the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, he was watching Golf Channel’s highlights of the first round. He was six back so he knew his name wasn’t going to appear on the leaderboard shown. That didn’t bother him. Then he saw a secondary graphic showing how “Notables” had fared.
He wasn’t on that one either. The defending champion wasn’t even a notable.
Koepka used that as kindling for a second-round 66 that propelled him onto the first page of the leaderboard. By Sunday he was alone at the top, the first back-to-back U.S. Open winner in almost 30 years.
“I think he just says, ‘Listen if people are going to continue to ignore me, I’m just going to continue to go out and play,’” Harmon said. “It pisses him off.”
3 wins, 2 majors
That was his mantra even in college. He was a three-time All-American at Florida State and qualified for the 2012 U.S. Open as an amateur, but he never sniffed a Walker Cup call-up.
Now 28, Koepka has three PGA Tour wins, two of which are U.S. Opens. He is the world No. 4. He’s second on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list.
It’s hardly surprising for a player who has emerged as perhaps the most consistent big game hunter on the PGA Tour.
In his last dozen majors he’s finished lower than T-21 only once. Since 1997, 703 men have played seven or more rounds in major championships. Koepka is one of only five who are under par for their efforts. The others? Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy.
Four guys who never want for attention.
I asked Jimmy Walker if he thinks Koepka gets a spotlight worthy of his résumé.
“I don’t think a lot of players get respect for their games out here,” he said. “The media only wants to hear from a few people.”
‘Nobody wants to interview him’
“He’s just never been a guy who is on people’s radar,” Harmon said. “I can’t figure out what it is. If your career is defined by the majors, you’ve got a kid under the age of 30, who’s American, good looking, he’s got two U.S. Opens and nobody wants to interview him.”
Part of the reason folks are not beating down his door surely rests with his personality. He’s always professional and polite, but is so laid back that he could make a stoned hippie seem manic.
He won’t lack for attention this weekend at least.
After cruising to a five-stroke lead midway through the third round, he stumbled with consecutive bogeys that allowed a handful of challengers to enter Sunday with some hope. For each of the 66 strokes he required, Koepka flatlined, birdies and bogeys registering about the same on his impassive face.
But if the perceived snubs are fuel enough to take down two majors, perhaps Koepka should hope the attention remains sparse. Golf has had many a great champion who played with a chip on their shoulder, determined to prove themselves against their enemies, real or imagined.
“You always feel like you’ve got something to prove, whether it be to yourself or somebody else. I can think of plenty of people along the way telling me I’ll be nothing, working at McDonald’s,” he said.
“The whole time, you’re just trying to prove them wrong. Sometimes your haters, I guess, are your biggest motivators. I don’t take it personally. I’m just trying to use it as extra motivation.”