The Open 2019: With each passing major, Brooks Koepka looking more like Tiger Woods
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — The run continues. With all due respect, Brooks Koepka does not have the time or interest to focus all of his incredible talents on tournaments played in Hartford and Fort Worth and Quad Cities. He served his apprenticeship. He doesn’t talk lazily about “the majors,” as those of us barstools do. He doesn’t talk lazily, period. He makes his words count, and his preferred compound nouns are “major championships” and “major-championship golf.”
On Thursday, in the first round of the year’s last major, he picked right up where he left off: a 68, a score shot also by Sergio Garcia (he’ll beat him), Webb Simpson (he’ll beat him) and Alex Noren (he’ll beat him). To win, you got to beat everybody else. That’s Tiger 101. That’s one of Koepka’s themes, too. The harder the course, the better. This Royal Portrush course is hard.
His caddie, Ricky Elliott, learned the trade right here, and coming off the home green on Thursday there were more lads calling for Elliott’s attention than Koepka’s. Do you think the reigning PGA champion cared? Of course not! This is major-championship golf. When it’s all said and done, the way Koepka keeps score, this is his year to date: second (Masters), first (Bethpage), second (U.S. Open) — and here we are.
By the way, whatever first impression you had of this guy, maybe as an uncommunicative ball-basher (see: Hills, Erin) it’s time to give all that up. First of all, more so than any other player since Woods in his prime, Koepka has all the shots. OK, maybe he’s not going into the World Chipping Hall of Fame the first time he’s on the ballot. Jack Nicklaus wasn’t a great chipper, either. When you hit as many greens as Big Jack did and Big Brooks does, it’s a little less important.
There’s been a peculiar change of emphasis through the majors this year, and it will be a new pattern. Going from the Masters to the PGA Championship to the U.S. Open to the Open Championship, the peculiar specialty of fast-green putting diminishes in importance. Facing an uphill 50-footer (rough estimate) on the last, Koepka took the putter head halfway back to his right knee and cozied it right up to the hole.
“You just have to adjust to it,” he said, talking about putting the slow (but true) Portrush greens. “[Every year] somebody wins, so they figure it out.” Good attitude!
Yes, it’s easy to have a good attitude when you can do nothing special and shoot 68. Still, consider his commentary about the 10 rain showers he played through: “It doesn’t matter. Everybody else has got to deal with it, too. You just push on.”
Elliott, who has played some low-level tournament golf, speaks about golf and golf shots and courses with a hyper-fluency but almost never makes a reference to himself. (It’s an Irish thing.) While he would take no credit for influencing Koepka at any single shot during their five-hour workday on Thursday, Koepka said Elliott guided him on all “68 of them.” They’re an appealing team.
After signing his card, Koepka’s girlfriend (Jena Sims) and teacher (Claude Harmon III) were awaiting him. Koepka, ranked No. 1 in the world, has a small, tight circle. He has spent a lot of gym time with Dustin Johnson, the No. 2 player in the world, but Koepka isn’t out there beating his chest. You might see him in a Marriott parking lot, walking the dog. He brings to mind the many outfielders over the years who have left the prairie and made it to the bigs. Koepka is not Roger Maris, but he’s not Mickey Mantle, either.
Ms. Sims adds a little glamour to the occasion, and on Thursday her can of water, her purse and her ski cap’s pom-pom were all a perfect match, a color Crayola UK might call Irish Sunset Silver. The winner’s jug here is silver, too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Well, we might. But Koepka won’t. The thoroughbreds never do.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]