SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Ricky Elliott didn’t know what to expect when he made the short journey from Orlando to Jupiter, Florida, to check up on his boss, Brooks Koepka.
It was the week after the Masters, and Koepka had been out for three months with a partially torn tendon in his left wrist, watching TV and hating it. He’d said on the phone he was going to try and start hitting some little shots, but he was probably going to be pretty rusty. Elliott, a former Irish boys’ champion who started to caddie for Koepka when the latter was just starting out in Europe, tried to temper his expectations.
He wasn’t prepared for what he found.
“I went down and he was hitting full shots, and he was hitting them right out of the button,” Elliott said. “I’m going, ‘Are you sure you haven’t been practicing?’ He didn’t hit a shot for three and a half months, and it looked like he hadn’t missed a beat. I have no idea how he does it; he’s obviously a tremendously talented guy.”
Yeah, you could say that.
At the end of a week in which Koepka said that no one was more confident than him, and that someone was going to have to come and take the trophy away from him, Koepka, 28, shot a final-round 68 to finish 1 over par and become the first player to win back-to-back U.S. Opens since Curtis Strange in 1988-’89.
Tommy Fleetwood (63) finished second, a shot back.
Koepka is projected to move up 33 spots, to 13th, in the FedExCup, and to ascend to 4th in the Official World Golf Ranking.
How did this one compare to last year? A lot of people asked that Sunday. Koepka had a higher score (by 15 shots), and a bigger friends-and-family section (a dozen or more people) that this time included his father, Bob, on Father’s Day. Although Shinnecock Hills is different from Erin Hills around the greens, Koepka and Elliott agreed the course felt similar enough.
Another popular talking point: the bromance between Koepka and his final-round playing partner, Dustin Johnson (70, 3 over). They didn’t chat during the round but worked out together Sunday morning (they share the same trainer, Joey Diovisalvi) and Koepka dished that while he has Johnson beat on upper body, Johnson is “a freak” in the lower-body department.
But for Koepka the most important preparation for winning this U.S. Open was not winning the last one, nor was it hanging out with world No. 1 Johnson, although he admitted D.J. would be one of the first people he calls upon returning home to South Florida.
The most important preparation was that long stretch where he did nothing at all. He realized to his surprise that he not only missed the game, he needed it.
“It was very frustrating,” Koepka said, “sitting on the couch, not doing anything. You know, I couldn’t pick anything up with my left hand. I was in a soft cast all the way up to my elbow. It wasn’t fun.”
More than just his cast got soft, his famous biceps deflating with disuse. But a funny thing happened simultaneously: Koepka’s desire went the other way, inflating until it was ready to burst.
“For someone like Brooks, who has never been a golf nerd, I think he fell in love with golf,” said Claude Harmon III, his swing coach at the Floridian.
Koepka follows sports (most pros do), but usually doesn’t watch golf on TV (most don’t). This year, though, was an exception. He watched his Presidents Cup teammate Patrick Reed win the Masters and slip on the green jacket from his living room sofa.
Harmon was stunned.
“I really believe he fell in love with the game of golf and playing and hitting shots,” Harmon said. “He only started hitting balls, full swings with wedges and 9-irons, the Monday after Augusta. To come from there to where he is now is huge. The athlete in him helped him.”
Asked about his rapid return to a world-class golfer, Koepka shrugged.
“Yeah, I think the first day I hit balls, everything came out exactly the way it should have,” he said. “It felt like I didn’t miss three months.”
Was he surprised?
“No,” he said. “I mean, last year at the British, I think I played once from the U.S. Open to the Open and then came out, and I think I had a piece of the lead. I don’t need to practice every single day. It’s the same game I’ve been playing for 24 years now. I know what I’m doing. I know how to swing a golf club. It’s just a game that I’ve been playing my entire life.”
The athlete in Koepka saw him through at Shinnecock. While other players grumbled about the greens, the weather and the pin placements, Koepka steadfastly refused to go negative.
“Everybody has to play the same course,” he said.
The athlete in Koepka saw him stand up to the course’s sometimes foul moods. He made par putts of just over 6 feet and 8 ½ feet at the 12th and 14th holes, respectively, to maintain momentum Sunday, and rolled in a crucial bogey putt from just inside 13 feet at the 11th.
“To get that up and down was absolutely massive,” caddie Elliott said. “It’s hard to believe that a bogey keeps your momentum goin’ but it kinda did.”
Momentum is a funny thing; if you’re doing it right, it never leaves you for long. Koepka will be going for his third straight U.S. Open title at Pebble Beach next year. He says he doesn’t putt well on poa annua, and therefore doesn’t play too much on the PGA TOUR’s West Coast Swing.
Take that for what it’s worth; if we’ve learned anything over the last four days on these windswept links, it’s that it would be foolish to write him off.
Koepka’s first U.S. Open title defense looked doomed when he opened with a 75 at Shinnecock on Thursday, but he stormed back with a 66 on Friday. He fought the semi-unplayable course to a draw (72) Saturday, and bucked up on holes 11 through 14 when he easily could’ve folded Sunday.
By the time he was interviewed by Fox’s Strange (an apt pairing of interviewer and interviewee) on the 18th green, where he had made a meaningless bogey to win, Koepka had done what all U.S. Open champions must: He had exerted his considerable will and flexed his underrated putting prowess in the face of everything the course, the USGA and Mother Nature could throw at him.
The pain in his wrist, which had felt like someone was jabbing him with a knife as he finished last at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, was gone. The binge-watching of all those TV shows, including the Masters, was but a memory.
Brooks Koepka, two-time U.S. Open champion, was loving life.