Brooks Koepka loves being an athlete — even more than being a golfer. On an uncharacteristically gray South Florida day in mid-April, he arrives for lunch at Palm City’s Floridian National Golf Club having just completed one of trainer Joey D’s typically grueling workouts. Conveniently, SportsCenter is cast on the dining area’s TVs, and Koepka can’t stop watching and weighing in on other all-star jocks. His eyes light up when LeBron James flies in for a dunk. He’s practically giddy when Chris Paul slips the rock through an opponent’s legs.
Floridian National, where Koepka is a member, has been a refuge for him since January, when he was put on ice because of a partially torn tendon in his left wrist. Doctor’s orders: Rest and rehab — and plenty of it. This week, Koepka is back. His appearance at the Zurich Classic, with teammate Marc Turnesa, will mark his first Tour start since Kapalua. More pressing, of course, is his defense of his U.S. Open title, having swatted away Erin Hills’s record length and turned the course into a birdie-fest. Even he knows Shinnecock Hills won’t be that kind of pushover. Koepka hopes to get his first look at that Long Island legend in June.
Until then, his hang at this clubhouse is social. Chef Michael Parker swings by his table to say a quick hello. Koepka’s coach, Claude Harmon, pulls up a chair, too. On the menu today is the “DJ Special,” in honor of his buddy, the world No. 1. And, yes, plans are underway for the “BK Special.”
In the past four months, you’ve spent a lot of time here at the Floridian. Has it been weird not being on Tour?
Yeah, this has been a hideaway. Basically, I’ve spent all of January, February and half of March in my house. Didn’t really go anywhere, didn’t really do anything. It’s hard. What’s been good for the downtime is I got a dog. A little black lab. I’ve been training her, so she’s kept me occupied.
What’s her name?
Cove. A little girl. She’s a handful — not in a bad way, but my hands got cut up a bit. She was biting so much during the teething phase. She’s just now figuring out the swimming pool.
I’m sure she’s been a welcome distraction. What’s been the most frustrating part of the injury?
It hurt before Tiger’s event [the World Hero Challenge, in early December]. We knew something was wrong. I got an MRI and it came up clean, but the image wasn’t very good. They kind of messed it up. I didn’t play from Tiger’s event until I showed up in Hawaii [in early January] and was hitting it great. I can take a month off; it doesn’t really bother me. That Monday and Tuesday were probably the best I’ve hit it in a really long time, maybe since the U.S. Open. I was pumped. On Wednesday I went to the range, and the first swing with a wedge went 40 yards. I just felt it. I went, “Uh, oh. This is really not good.” It’s been annoying. Getting fat is no fun, either. I got up to the heaviest I’ve ever been: 222. I’m usually, like, 205 or 200.
Just because you had to sit around?
Yeah, sitting around. All I could do was legs in the gym. They got massive.
When did you decide to sit out the Masters?
Playing was the goal in the beginning, but getting back from Hawaii, the MRI showed the tendon was barely hanging on. We went back to my doctor and found the ligaments were barely hanging on, as well. [Recovery] has been a lot longer than we thought, but it was probably worse than we first let on.
So did you actually watch the Masters?
Yeah. It was fun. I haven’t watched it in a really long time. I was sweating just watching them play. You get the itch. You wanna be out there.
Did you feel a little like the forgotten man that week?
I feel like I’m forgotten all the time, so it doesn’t really bother me. We’ve had so many close calls in the majors, but at the same time, if you’re not first you’re last. Everyone remembers the winner, nobody remembers who finishes second. But quite a lot I seem to be right around the hunt with nine holes to play.
Do you remember the last time you missed a cut in a major?
It’s been awhile.
The 2013 British Open.
Really? Yeah, that sounds about right. My caddie was down here the other day. He was telling me that eight of the last nine majors I’ve played in, I’ve finished in the top 13 or better, which is a pretty cool stat. I’ve had plenty of chances to win. I feel like I probably should have two already.
On moving day at the Masters, you were tweeting about Manchester United. How did you become a Reds fan?
Being in Europe, man. If you’re going to dinner, everyone is watching football, so I had to pick a team. My caddie was a Man U fan. [Wayne] Rooney was playing for them, and I like Rooney, so I decided to adopt them. I’ll probably get crap for that, but I get crap for it all the time.
It does makes you sound a little like a bandwagon fan.
Man U was awful the first year I adopted them. I went to a game with Thorbjorn Olesen. They lost 5-0. We were in the Man U section. We were like, “Oh, boy. This is about to get rowdy. We better get out of here.” That was not fun to watch, but I’ve stuck with them. They’re all right now, but Man City is a lot better.
South Florida is a hotbed for Tour pros. Do you find yourself trying to make the most of that?
I don’t play with anybody down here. I’m focused on all the stuff I’ve gotta do. I can’t tell you the last time I played golf with someone. I see them all the time on Tour. I grew up here and I’ve got my friends I grew up with. I’d much rather be hanging around them than the guys I see 28, 30 weeks a year. I don’t get to see my boys that much.
There’s a clique of guys on Tour that have made it popular to be best friends on Tour and off Tour. It perpetuates the notion that Tour pros are hanging out all the time.
That’s kind of how it started to get with me and DJ. We’ve played two rounds of golf together outside of the Tour. Maybe two rounds. I’d much rather just hang out with him at my house or his house, not the golf course.
The four majors now are owned by four Americans, all between the ages 24 and 27, and you’re somehow the oldest. What does that say about the Tour or American golf? Is it surprising?
Not really. I think you’ve seen a whole new wave — a new generation — come in who are very eager to win. You didn’t really see it as much back then. Guys weren’t coming out at 19, 20 years old, ready to actually win, other than Tiger and Phil. Now, you look at it and so many guys are coming out at 19 and 20, competing and doing all this stuff. It’s pretty cool.
Take yourself back to Saturday night at Erin Hills last June. You’re one shot off the lead going into the final round.
I remember coming home and I told everyone, “When I win tomorrow, we’re not going back to West Palm, we’re going somewhere else.” And they’re like, “Okay, I’m with you.” I was like, “Perfect. Just pack your bags.” I woke up Sunday with the same confidence. I didn’t think there was any option other than winning. That was the one thing we were there for and that was what we were going to do. You kind of know when you’re going to do it. I had that feeling. I had it [when I won] in Phoenix, too. It’s just real confidence. Getting in the zone. You hear all these great athletes talk about when they blackout; there are 48 minutes in a basketball game but you don’t remember them. You don’t know how many points you scored until you look up at the scoreboard.
Speaking of scoreboards, you won by…
I don’t even know.
You won by four, finishing 16 under, which tied a U.S. Open record. Afterward, the USGA took heat for how gettable Erin Hills was. Did you ever think, U.S. Opens aren’t supposed to be won at 16 under?
It’s still a golf course. It doesn’t really matter what the setup is — whether it’s easy or hard, people are always going to bitch and complain. If the winning score was 15 over, people are going to complain that it wasn’t fun to watch, because how much fun is it to watch people make bogeys? If you’re playing good, you can make any golf course look easy. Erin Hills was long, and you had fairways to hit, but you saw guys that still missed them. People want to say they were 70 yards wide, but people were still missing the fairway. Somebody is always going to bitch about the course setup. It’s too hard. It’s too easy. You know what? I don’t really care. At the end of the day, all you had to do was go win the golf tournament.
You really took control on the back nine on Sunday. When did you realize you had the tournament won?
When I made the par putt on 13. I hit a terrible chip to probably eight feet. It was a little slider from left to right. Once I made that, I was like, boom, we’re off and running.
An hour later, you were a U.S. Open champ. When did it all sink in?
I’m watching them engrave my name, and I’m like, “That’s the coolest thing ever.” But you’re still running hot from playing. Literally, you’re whisked away. I hadn’t had a moment to myself, so I told everyone I had to go to the bathroom.
I didn’t even use the bathroom. I just looked in the mirror and was like, “Yessssss!” It was funny, I actually pumped my fist and nicked the mirror. Good thing I didn’t punch it. But then it hit me on the plane, as well. We were probably 45 minutes into the flight. We had all moved to the back of the plane, and I remember reading the names [on the trophy]. I don’t cry — but I just started crying. I had a moment, man. When it hits you, holy cow. People don’t see that side of me.
What was it like to bring the trophy home to your family in South Florida?
It took me a month to get there. First, we went to Vegas for a week. Then to L.A. for a week, then Atlanta. The Fourth of July was the first time they got to see it, and everybody was drinking out of it. I think the only thing that hasn’t been drunk out of that trophy is water. [Laughs]
That victory was your biggest golf accomplishment to date. Do you size that up against anyone else and what they’ve done on Tour?
No, I think that’s a label that other people put on us. I’m only concerned with my expectations are or what I have in mind for my career. You start comparing yourself to other people, you end up trying to be that person. You’ve got to be your own person, do it your own way. You can be motivated by somebody but you don’t have to take after them.
So, who motivates you then?
In fairness, you have to go with Dustin because he’s No. 1. Why wouldn’t you? If you’re going to shoot for No. 2, that’s awesome. Congratulations. No offense to JT, but I’m not shooting to be JT at No. 2. I wanna take Dustin off his throne.
That must make this season even more frustrating. You were flying up the rankings.
When I come back, there’s not going to be anybody else in the field more excited to play golf than me. I can promise you that. It’ll almost feel like one of the first couple times you tee it up on Tour or at a major. The excitement level will be there. There’ll be no expectations. Man, I’ll just be happy to be out. I just wanna hit the ball, be out in front of everybody again and feel the competitive juices flowing. That’s all.
The ultimate focus is now on Shinnecock Hills. Have you played it before?
Never. On the Tuesday of the Memphis event [a week before the Open], we go wherever the U.S. Open is for last-minute preparation. Me, Claude [Harmon] and my caddie. The course is probably as close as it’ll be to tournament conditions.
How much are you trying to learn in that practice round?
My goal is usually to figure out the sight lines off the tee. Like, If you want to be aggressive, this is as far right or as far left as you want to take it. This is the run-out. Or, The creek comes across here. Once you figure all that out, the week of the Open is just about figuring out the green complexes. This is where we want to miss it for this pin. …I know where we want to be for this pin.
You must build up quite a pile of information.
I don’t know. People overanalyze and stuff their brain with it. I just try to break it down simply. On this hole, if you miss it left, you’re dead. Don’t miss it left off the tee. It’s a lot simpler than people think. I don’t even carry a yardage book.
Your brother, Chase, is following your route in professional golf — Challenge tour, European Tour, then hopefully the PGA Tour. What advice did you give him, if any, about it?
I just keep telling him to play as much as you can. You’ll learn something every week. It’s fun, man. It’s fun traveling over there [in Europe]. I keep telling him to enjoy it and take it all in. Traveling for me — right now — is nothing like it was five years ago. It was way more fun then, with all the guys hanging out. We’d go to dinner and it’d be a table of six or seven of us. Five or six of us are players and there’s one coach. Everybody’s talking about golf. At that table over there, there’s six or seven more other guys. It’s small and everyone is on the same flight. Now, it’s just hop on the plane and go. There are seven other planes going the same direction. Everybody’s got their family and doing all this stuff.
It sounds like you miss that country-hopping aspect of the European Tour.
It’s so much fun. You go to some of the most beautiful places in the world. You know the Paramount Pictures logo? You’re looking at that the entire time you’re playing golf. You’re looking out over the mountains. That’s how it is. And all the places are just a little bit different. Today, I take a lot of vacations if I’m home. That’s part of the other reason why I don’t get to see many of my buddies. If I’m home for a week, I might take four days and go to Turks & Caicos, or Jamaica. Do whatever, then pop back in for three days and go to a Tour event.
As you should.
But to me, traveling in the United States isn’t that much fun. I like to go elsewhere and experience different cultures.
What’s at the top of your list of places you haven’t visited?
Australia. And I really want to go to Costa Rica.
Would you plan it around golf?
Australia could be around golf. Costa Rica is definitely just for fun. I think that would be a cool spot to go to. Anything with warm weather and beaches. I love Asia. We usually spend two weeks over in Asia, after the China event. This past year, I brought my best friend and his fiancée, me, my girlfriend and my caddie. Just spent two weeks over in Asia traveling around. We had a blast.
I’m sure you’re eager to get back on Tour. Have your expectations changed at all in the past year?
Just to win the next time I tee it up. Now, the goal is to win multiple times every year, and to win a major every year. Once you win one, you get a little bit of a taste of it. You’re eager to do it again. Plus, you’ve got the confidence of having done it, of having finished it: Hey, I’ve got something you guys don’t. Rich Beem told me this one time: “There are only 300 guys who have ever won a major.” [Ed. note: 220.] That’s pretty cool. You’re in that elite group. You’ve got a leg up. The next step is winning the next one. It’ll come soon. I know it will.