AUGUSTA, Ga. — The last we heard from Brooks Koepka at a major it was not pretty.
In fact, the last four times Koepka teed it up on golf’s biggest stages, it was downright ugly.
But that was one gimpy knee, one baring-of-soul episode on Netflix, and two LIV Golf wins ago. In fact, that might as well have been before the pre-majors monster Koepka, when he would roll into the week with a chip on his shoulder the size of his Jupiter waterfront estate.
Now, that seems like so long ago. Especially after Koepka’s opening-round 65 Thursday, his best-ever round at the Masters, put him in a three-way tie for first place with Viktor Hovland and Jon Rahm.
“Beware of a healthy B.K.,” said Bob Koepka, Brooks’ dad.
Brooks hinted three weeks ago at a LIV event outside Tucson that the mentally broken man we saw on “Full Swing” was back together again. He promised his knee — one he said one day will need to be replaced — no longer is holding him back and his confidence was at 2018 levels.
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And he reiterated that Thursday after a round that included eight birdies, including the final two holes, and one bogey.
“Once you feel good, everything changes,” he said.
And what does it mean to feel good?
“Wake up pain-free. Being able to move. Not having to get shot up to play. Not having to do anything. It’s been nice just to … It’s a new normal. But it’s definitely pretty close to what it was.”
This is a man whose confidence a year ago was as shattered as his kneecap was in early 2021 and who now has erased that self-doubt by wiping most of 2022 from his mind.
Koepka’s last four PGA Tour events entering this week were the 2022 majors where he missed two cuts (Masters and British Open) and finished 55th twice (PGA Championship and U.S. Open). In his mind, they don’t exist, just like the 2021 Masters that he played less than a month after that knee surgery and missed the cut.
“I don’t really count the last two,” Koepka said this week about the Masters. “One of them was three weeks after surgery, so just figuring out how to walk the place was tough enough. Just still wasn’t a hundred percent last year. So to me, I don’t really count those.”
Koepka’s last four Masters rounds entering Thursday: 74, 75, 75, 75.
Birdie putts of 12, 14 and 31 feet on the front nine assured him there would be no repeat of the past two years at Augusta National. And it could have been better. Much better. Maybe even record-setting better considering four other misses inside 10 feet and a chip that caught the lip and nearly dropped.
“It could have really been low,” Brooks said.
Koepka dominated majors for two years
Of course, before the injuries mounted (he also had wrist and hip issues), this is a man who was as feared as any golfer on the planet as the majors approached, winning four and finishing in the top five in three others, including two seconds. In his heyday, Koepka was the closest thing to Tiger Woods those four times a year, stalking his prey and knowing it was going to take an extraordinary effort to beat him.
“He knows what it takes to win a major,” Bob Koepka said. “He knows the pressure and everything. He’s won all kinds of different ways.”
Brooks regained that feeling about December. Then, last week, he went out and won another LIV event. Besides padding an already extensive bank account with LIV’s riches (some would say blood money), it gave him that last dose of confidence he needed heading to the Masters.
“Just try to build off that momentum,” he said.
Now, Koepka admits his “knee modeling days are over” and has accepted the grueling regimen he goes through after each round to keep the swelling down and make sure he’s ready for the next day. But this is the new normal.
“I just think of all those hard times,” he said. “I think of the lady, Heather, that was doing my rehab; just to play Augusta in ’21. I just remember biting down on a towel and tears were coming out of my eyes and she was trying to bend the knee. I figure if I can go through that, I can go through anything.”
Now, Koepka must do something he has not done in more than two years and has accomplished once in nearly four years … win a 72-hole tournament.
In fact, the one-time No. 1 golfer in the world (he has slipped to 118th partly because LIV golfers are not eligible for ranking points) has completed 72 holes one time since last June’s U.S. Open and that was at the Asian Tour Saudi International in February where he placed 46th.
Otherwise, Koepka has played 10 54-hole LIV events since joining the tour, winning two.
“They told me getting out of surgery that it was going to be pretty much a year and a half,” Koepka said. “Then you just create bad habits, and it’s just frustration. You feel like you’re never going to be healthy.
“I wish I had celebrated kind of the little milestones along the way instead of thinking I could just power through it. So yeah, it was definitely frustrating. But once you feel good, everything changes.”
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