Major No. 5 a win for Team Koepka: Those who brought Brooks back from the brink
PITTSFORD, N.Y. – They were coming for Brooks Koepka’s throne again.
And, OK, lately, a fortunate few had even succeeded in supplanting him. The tough talk that backfired at Harding Park. The 50-year-old who taught him a lesson at Kiawah. The new world No. 1 who rumbled right through him at Augusta.
But that was only a temporary displacement. Now was Koepka’s time to resume his rightful place atop the major hierarchy.
Viktor Hovland had fought gamely throughout the final round of this PGA Championship, but the Norwegian’s tee shot on the 16th hole drifted too far right and found the fairway bunker. Needing to stay aggressive, he got too greedy with a 9-iron and didn’t clear the lip, his ball plunging into the grass above the bunker and dooming his chances.
“Congratulations, Brooks!” someone yelled.
But Koepka’s expression never changed. He just stood there, one foot crossed in front of the other, hand on his hip. Stoic, calm, confident. Typically, he abhors slow play, even publicly rails against it, but this was a five-minute delay he didn’t seem to mind. Another contender had faltered. In his experience, at least, they almost always do.
As the sport tries to identify the preeminent player of the post-Tiger era, Koepka has proven to be up to the task. Historically great. Entering the final round at Oak Hill, he was 3-for-4 when staked to a 54-hole lead in a major – a smaller sample size than Woods’ eye-popping closing rate, but nonetheless impressive.
Koepka knows that not everyone is built for these fraught moments. That legacies are at stake. At the end of a career, no one will remember how many tournaments on tropical islands a player won. It’s majors or bust, and Koepka, rebuilt and refocused, was keen to become the 20th player all-time with at least five of ’em.
And so, after Hovland hacked out down the fairway, Koepka needed just 15 seconds to step into his shot, glance one last time at the flag and then – whoosh – slash through the thick rough, his ball landing on the front edge of the green and trundling within 3 feet of the cup for one last macho birdie.
“He has five majors,” Hovland said, “and that’s a hell of a record. It’s not easy going toe-to-toe with a guy like that.”
With his alpha energy and jock swagger, it’s natural to think of Koepka as a singular talent – and, sure, he was the one posing for pictures with his third Wanamaker Trophy after a two-shot victory. But during the walk from the 18th green to the scoring tent, the enormity of the moment hit him. The emotion began to build.
What was he thinking?
“Pardon my language,” he said Sunday night, “but it’s all the f---ing s--t I had to go through. No one knows. No one knows all the pain.
“So, yeah, it felt good. It felt really good.”
Not just for Koepka, golf’s major king.
But for everyone who helped return him there.
To those who know him best, Koepka’s controversial move to LIV last year wasn’t the most shocking transaction of the summer.
It was that he re-hired Claude Harmon III as his swing coach.
“Never in a million years did I think that’d happen,” Harmon said late Sunday on the putting green.
They hadn’t talked for nearly two years. Koepka had tried to reunite a year earlier, but Harmon rejected the offer. It was too soon. Their split was too nasty, too painful, fueled in large part by Harmon’s other pupil, Dustin Johnson, becoming a world-beater in the summer of 2020.
But last July, Koepka was growing increasingly desperate. He’d bolted for the rival league, his body was breaking down, and his swing was in disarray. He felt lost. In a practice round at the LIV Bedminster event, Harmon thought he’d never seen him play worse. After the second round, Koepka finally swallowed his pride and asked for help.
“I still feel like I have a lot of great golf left,” he told Harmon. “I still feel like I can win major championships.”
That unshakeable self-belief was at odds with the narratives swirling around Koepka – that he was washed up, a sellout, a “non-competitive loser” playing 54-hole exhibitions. In the Netflix documentary released earlier this year, big, bad Brooks was portrayed in an entirely new light: open and fragile and vulnerable, contemplating his career mortality. But there’s an important distinction to be made, Harmon said. When Koepka confided to his inner circle that he “can’t compete with these guys” anymore, he wasn’t talking about the quality of his game. He was talking about his brittle body. With his future uncertain, and with a reported nine-figure check on the table, Koepka made a business decision and left behind the PGA Tour.
“And so if there’s narrative that he doesn’t give a s--t anymore, then why is he hiring me?” Harmon said. “Why does he have this giant team of people around him if he’s just gonna phone all this in and go sit around with [wife] Jena on a f--king yacht? Because that’s what everyone was saying.
“But these guys, they’re athletes and champion golfers. It’s in their DNA.”
Harmon views it as a double standard that exists only in pro golf: Will Lamar Jackson not strive to take the Ravens to the Super Bowl because he just signed a contract with $185 million guaranteed? “Those other guys got the bag, and nobody bats an eye,” Harmon said. “So why is it different with Brooks?”
In Koepka’s new professional home, not much has changed with their working relationship. For eight years together, he and Harmon focused on the same three things: putting the ball position forward, making sure the backswing stays in front of his body, and keeping the downswing in front of him. No one makes sexy Instagram videos about grip, stance, posture and alignment, but various injuries had torpedoed Koepka’s fundamentals; Harmon’s goal was to simplify a complicated process. Within four months of working together, Koepka was a winner again. At his first major since the rebuild, he was the 54-hole leader at the Masters. The next time he was in that heady position, he won.
“He’s just a really good golfer,” Harmon said. “He likes it being messy and being dirty – he likes major championships. He likes climbing Mt. Everest and being in the ‘death zone.’ Everyone says they like being up there. But you gotta step over dead bodies to get to the top, and you gotta step over dead bodies to get back down.”
After major No. 5, Harmon could only chuckle at a memory from a long-ago PGA. At Valhalla in 2014, Harmon was standing on the first tee with Koepka and Jonas Blixt when Tom Watson approached. Watson, that year’s Ryder Cup captain, was looking for Harris English, to no avail. So he decided to play a few holes with the guys until he could locate English out on the course.
Koepka launched a rocket over the trees, and as they walked down the first fairway, Watson asked him: “So, which club do you play out of?”
He thought Koepka was a club pro.
Now he has five majors – just the seventh player to earn that haul by the age of 34.
“We’re in different territory now,” Harmon said.
On Saturday night, Koepka warned us that this final round would be different.
At the Masters, he held a four-shot lead with 29 holes to play before getting run over by Jon Rahm on a marathon Sunday at Augusta National. It was Koepka’s first blown 54-hole lead in a major, and the loss was so devastating that he didn’t sleep that night. His best friend tore into him. He later admitted that he choked. But he also promised a different mentality as he sat on a one-shot lead here at Oak Hill.
“I know what I did,” he said Saturday night. “I won’t show up like that tomorrow.”
Koepka never revealed exactly what happened at Augusta, or what he thought during the few hours between the end of the third round and the start of the final one.
“I can’t give away all the secrets,” he said.
But Pete Cowen was among those in whom Koepka confided. They talked the night after the collapse.
“When he said that, he was saying: I almost tried not to lose it,” Cowen said. “Which is a total mistake. They’re only going to come at you.
“With situations like that, you’ve got to tread on the guy’s neck and say, I’m going down there, are you going with me?” Cowen continued. “He didn’t do that. He almost tried to stay too level.”
Just as Harmon has honed Koepka’s full swing, and Jeff Pierce has sharpened Koepka’s putting stroke, Cowen has played a critical role in Koepka’s resurgence. He’s equal parts short-game coach, psychologist and unapologetic truth-teller. Before the 2017 U.S. Open, Cowen gave Koepka an epic tongue-lashing about his woebegone attitude – and it propelled the mega-talent to his first major title and kick-started this epic run of dominance. That Erin Hills flag remains the only one that Cowen keeps in his collection. It came with a personalized message from Koepka: “Thanks for the bollocking! I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Cowen threatened another scolding the week before the Masters last month, but Koepka told him not to bother. That he could lock in himself. Koepka won the LIV Orlando event and then nearly slipped into the green jacket, too. That week Cowen was most pleased because Koepka had made him feel “obsolete” as a coach. “That’s what I want,” he said, “and that’s where he is at the moment.”
No pep talk is the same. The message delivered when Koepka was down and out, injured and broken, was different than the one when he was on top of the world. But Cowen’s unique talents were needed once again on Sunday afternoon, when Koepka went through an iffy range session at Oak Hill and began to fret.
“I had to talk him down off the ledge again,” Cowen said.
Koepka didn’t “feel it at all this week” with his swing; he opened with 72 and said it was the worst he’d struck it in months. Even after following it up with consecutive rounds of 66 – the low score of the day, both rounds – it was clear to his team that he didn’t quite have his best stuff.
“But what he’s relating it to is perfection,” Cowen said. “I told him, ‘You only have to be 70% to win at this.’ He thinks you’ve got to be 90%. That was the problem with Henrik Stenson – he thought he could only win with 100%. That’s why he didn’t win as many as he should.
“But at least with Brooks he sees that now. He’s managed to win before when he hasn’t had his A-game, and so this time, he’s like, I can do that again.”
The messy warmup served to sharpen Koepka’s focus. Across the first four holes, he didn’t hit an approach shot outside of 16 feet. He ripped off three birdies in that stretch, extending a lead that he never fully relinquished. In all, he made seven birdies on his way to a 67.
“Sometimes I have to help him realize just how good he really is,” Cowen said. “I said, ‘Who is going to beat you? If you allow them to beat you, they will. But if you don’t, they won’t.’ I told him how good he is, and he did the rest.”
When Koepka suffered a career-threatening knee injury in March 2021, the only person who accompanied him to Los Angeles for the surgery and rehabilitation was caddie Ricky Elliott.
“I feel bad for him that he was stuck with me there for a while,” Koepka said. “He was tired of me; I was tired of him. I don’t know if he gets enough credit for being as good of a caddie as he is.”
But to Elliott, at least, this has never been a typical player-caddie relationship. There’s more to this job than club selection and green-reading. Their bond goes deeper than stepping in when needed and shutting up when not. He considers Koepka a little brother. With no family here in the States, the Northern Irishman has become tight with all of the Koepkas: Brooks’ wife Jena, as well as his parents, brother and stepmom.
“They’re like a second family to me,” Elliott said.
And so when Koepka phoned Elliott to tell him that he needed him in L.A., that he wanted to be with him as he began the grueling recovery from a dislocated right kneecap and other ligament damage, Elliott didn’t think twice about spending two-and-a-half weeks across the country.
“I’ve been around and knew how low he was,” Elliott said. “I’ve been to the highest points and the lowest points, and it’s just golf, isn’t it?”
Elliott was with Koepka from the start, a decade ago, when the former Florida State product, after flaming out at Q-School, went across the pond to try his luck on the European Challenge Tour. They traveled the world, grew close and learned how to win, together.
A few years after being confused for a club pro, Koepka announced his arrival at Erin Hills, then ticked off three victories in his next five majors. “He won his first and was climbing the ladder,” Elliott said, “and then it goes bang, bang, bang. But now, he’s suddenly going against guys who are 10 years younger. Half these guys have never even seen him win a major. And so he has to prove it to them, too.”
There’s a revealing moment in the Netflix docuseries when Koepka tried to reconcile his current fragility with his past glory.
“I go back to the first major I ever won,” he said then, “and I’d pay back every dollar I’ve ever made just to have that feeling again for another hour.”
Lugging the bag toward Oak Hill’s clubhouse on Sunday night, Elliott could relate to that sentiment.
“I didn’t know whether he’d ever be able to do it again, and I think this will be the most special one he’s won,” Elliott said. “I don’t really have any feelings right now, any words. It’s just incredible. This is it. This is it right here.”
The final part of Koepka’s reclamation was arguably the most important.
Harmon mentioned it.
So did Cowen.
It’s Koepka’s training and physical therapy staff: Andrew Cummings, Marc Wahl, Ara Suppiah. It’s the behind-the-scenes crew that helped put the shattered “Glass Man,” as Elliott calls him, back together.
Cummings, who runs the AC Sports Performance Lab in Jupiter, Florida, received a call from Koepka in late November. More than a year-and-a-half after his horrific knee injury, Koepka still wasn’t moving how he wanted. The growing list of injuries had forced him to make other compensations – and at 32, frankly, he was too young to be feeling this old. The ailing star needed help.
“He’d been through a lot,” Cummings said. “We had a very low baseline and a lot of work that needed to be done.”
The first priority for the trainer was strengthening Koepka’s right knee.
“It’s everything in his golf swing,” Cummings said. “If he can’t push off that right side, that’s his M.O. We needed to get it as healthy and strong and stable as possible, to not only allow him to do daily activities without pain but compete at the highest level and get it to a point where he doesn’t even think about it and has confidence in it.”
How they accomplished that remains within the team – “Some of that is the secret sauce we’ll keep,” Cummings said – but within two months Koepka already noticed a difference.
Some of the gains were apparent visually. He shed weight. The knee showed less inflammation. His movement quality in the gym was better. But mentally, Cummings said, “I’ve never had the opportunity to work with an athlete like him. The dude has a different gear than anyone I’ve ever seen. His strength, his speed, his power is all great. But the biggest thing is his resilience. That was all him.”
Cummings and Koepka meet six days a week at home in South Florida, oftentimes at 6 a.m. With the late tee time Sunday, they didn’t start pushing weight until 8:30. All three members of the team work in concert, following the same game plan, with the same goals.
“It’s night and day compared to when we first started,” Cummings said. “He’s not even the same person. And when this guy is healthy, he’s able to do what he does best – and that’s win golf tournaments.”
Said Koepka: “They don’t get enough credit, but they have definitely revived my career. They did a great job, and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
And so what can Koepka accomplish now that his brittle body has been restored to near-full health?
“This is the start of another run.”
In the immediate aftermath, there was so much to unpack.
What Koepka’s win means for his place among the all-time greats.
What it means in the larger Tour-LIV culture war.
What it means for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. (He’s up to No. 2 in the standings.)
But for Koepka, standing behind the podium in the interview area, this wasn’t the time nor the place for those conversations.
He’s vaguely aware of the historical implications … but he’s just trying to add to his collection.
He knows this will be used as validation for the entire LIV model … but he’s more focused on his personal achievement.
He knows it increases the likelihood of another Ryder Cup appearance … but all along he just wanted to make the decision difficult on American captain Zach Johnson.
No, in this moment, he was more interested in reflection. In shouting out the people around him, the team that never wavered, never bailed, never stopped supporting him. Only a handful of people know the true depths that Koepka has explored over the past few years – the pain, the recovery, the uncertainty – and now they could share in his unbridled joy, too. It’s a 27-pound trophy that was lifted together.
“It feels damn good,” he said.
For everyone involved.