Over the last few seasons. no one has been better in the game's biggest moments than Brooks Koepka. The back-to-back US
Open victories (and almost a third) and two straight US PGA Championships helped the American become the No.1 player in the world. But, more than that, he has become the game's most intimidating presence when the lights are at their brightest.
He's one of the best I've ever seen at managing chaos in Major Championships; says his coach Claude Harmon III (in his last 10 Majors, Koepka has won four of them). He is the best at managing the chaos since Tiger.'
While comparing anyone to Woods is a fool's errand, when it comes to Koepka there are similarities that ring true. including the athleticism that he brings to his trade and, more importantly, his mental toughness, something that is so often the separator between the very good and the all-time greats.
“The game slows down for the greats,” Harmon continues. “They figure out how things work. He’s been trying to do what golfers and tennis players have been trying to do since the beginning of time and that’s peak four times a year. And he has figured it out.”
It’s not just those employed by Koepka who have noticed, either. “They are more similar than anybody is talking about,” says sport psychologist Gio Valiante of Koepka and Woods. “It goes very deep. It even shows up in their patterns of speech and use of language, their pauses, their beliefs. In a psychological sense, if not performance, he’s the most like Tiger Woods of any player we’ve ever seen.”
It wasn’t always that way, of course. Unlike Woods, who was a prodigy from early on, Koepka’s road to superstardom began later in life and in far-flung corners of the globe on the European Tour’s Challenge Tour with a circuitous route at best. Or, as Harmon puts it, with a lot of failures, noting the 15 times Koepka has finished second or third around the world as opposed to the 14 times he has been the last man standing, trophy in hand. Still, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that if nothing else the talent was at least there. All it took was finding its way.
The first time his caddie Ricky Elliott met Koepka was at the 2013 US PGA at Oak Hill. Koepka, still playing in Europe at the time, got into the tournament through his World Ranking, but his regular caddie wasn’t able to make it to upstate New York.
Enter Elliott, whose own fortuitous connection to Koepka is a compelling story in its own right. A former Irish boys’ champion, he grew up playing alongside Graeme McDowell at Royal Portrush and had big dreams of his own when he headed to the US to play golf at Toledo University in Ohio.
But while McDowell’s career soared, Elliott’s sunk into the harsh and depressing hinterlands of golf’s minitours. When that didn’t work, he tried teaching. But he missed the competitiveness that went with playing. Only he wasn’t good enough.
Now enter McDowell, who pitched Elliott to Koepka’s swing coach Claude Harmon III prior to the week at Oak Hill. Elliott was aware of Koepka, but not fully. Koepka and Elliott spoke on the phone and the first time they met was on Oak Hill’s driving range.
“I was late,” Elliott recalls. “He was already hitting balls and he was hitting this 5-irons way up there. I thought, Wow, this guy is pretty good.”
It didn’t take long for Elliott to figure out that he’d stumbled onto something special.
The two hit it off well, but the week wasn’t an easy one. To start, working together for the first time in the cauldron that is Major Championship golf presents its own set of challenges, such as having no idea how far your boss hits each club. For Elliott, it was also his first time looping in any Major.
Koepka made the cut, opening 7172 before another 71 in the third round. Then came Sunday and a pairing with Tiger Woods. “He was jumpy,” Elliott recalls. “It was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool.” It showed. Koepka bombed with a 77, tying for the second-highest score of the day, while Woods shot 70.
Still, Elliott gelled well enough that Koepka kept him on and the two were off and running over the rest of 2013, crisscrossing the globe together with stops in Scotland, Wales, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, and then back to Scotland.
Playing on a few sponsor exemptions at the start of the 2013-14 PGA Tour season, Koepka led after the second and third round of his first start, at the Frys.com Open, before tying for third. A few months later in Dubai, he tied for third again. Four months after that, he gave the first glimpse of his big game prowess with a tie for fourth to secure his PGA Tour card at the US Open at Pinehurst.
“That was the first time I realized that he was really a top player,” Elliott says. “He just played so well there. His demeanor on the course in such a big event was great. And that was early on before he’d won anything.” It wouldn’t belong.
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