‘He’s a contract killer, simply:’ Brooks Koepka back to defend at PGA Championship (and why he could repeat)

LOUISVILLE – ESPN golf analyst Andy North has seen enough of Brooks Koepka and the clinical way that he has won five major championships in the last six years to deliver this assessment.

“He’s a contract killer, simply,” he said during a pre-PGA Championship media call on Friday. “He shows up to a major championship, opens his locker and there’s like the ‘Mission Impossible’ thing: ‘Here’s your assignment, go kill somebody this week.’ That’s how he approaches golf at major championships. I love it.”

One year ago, Koepka, 34, completed a remarkable return to glory, shooting 3-under 67 at Oak Hill in the final round to win the PGA Championship by two strokes over Viktor Hovland and Scottie Scheffler. In doing so, Koepka became the 20th player to win at least five majors, and joined Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to win the Wanamaker Trophy three times in the stroke-play era.

But the narrative surrounding Koepka before his victory was a very different one. He was battling injuries, had taken the money and run to LIV Golf and was thought to be washed up. Moreover, despite winning both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship twice heading into last year’s PGA, Koepka had played small in some big spots – rinsing his tee shot at the 2019 Masters and finishing second to Tiger Woods, squandering a final-round lead to Phil Mickelson at the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah’s Ocean Course and blowing a 54-hole lead at the 2023 Masters by shooting a 74 and tying for second as Jon Rahm slipped into the Green Jacket.

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Three major failures in a row since his last triumph was more than a coincidence; it was a disconcerting pattern that gnawed at Koepka. ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt bumped into Koepka on the Monday of last year’s PGA at Oak Hill and said Koepka was still pissed about his Masters failure.

“He’s like, ‘I’m never going to do that again.’ I said, ‘Meaning what?’ ” Van Pelt recounted. “He felt like he got a little conservative and then Rahm got him, and when he tried to put his foot on the gas, there was nothing there. He didn’t have it.”

In Koepka’s words, he had “choked.” His swing coach, Claude Harmon III told him that this was simply the beginning of Brooks 2.0. “If this is the second phase of your career, it’s a helluva start,” Harmon said.

But Koepka took the defeat hard and said he didn’t sleep the night after the Masters. Instead, he went back to his rental house and, according to a recent Q&A with Golfweek, received what he called the best piece of advice he’s ever been given.

2023 PGA Championship
2023 PGA Championship

Brooks Koepka acknowledges the crowd after his birdie on the 17th hole at the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club. (Photo: Jamie Germano/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

“As you can imagine, after losing, you don’t always want to see everybody, but I sat out back with my best friend for six or seven hours and I will never forget the moment when he said: ‘Don’t ever be afraid to win,’ ” Koepka recalled.

After much soul-searching, he came to the conclusion that the only thing that truly matters when you get knocked down is how you respond.

“Thought about it for a few days after and really honed in on what I was doing and what went wrong,” Koepka said ahead of last year’s PGA Championship. “From there just never let it happen again. That’s the whole goal, right?”

Koepka held a one-stroke lead heading into the final round of the 2023 PGA after shooting 72-66-66. A month after his Masters letdown, he was ruthless in crunch time. He raced out of the gate, making three consecutive birdies from inside 10 feet starting at the second hole to build a four-stroke lead. He dropped shots at Nos. 6, where he drove in the water, and No. 7. Hovland remained hot on his heels until late in the championship.

But there would be no letup on the second nine. Koepka stuck his approach at No. 10 to 8 feet and rolled in the putt. After a bogey at 11, he knocked his second shot from the rough to 11 feet at the next hole and poured in the birdie putt. After Hovland made birdie at No. 13, Koepka sank a delicate 10-foot downhiller for par to protect a one-stroke lead.

This time, he kept the gas down, nearly driving the 14th green to set up another birdie. Hovland finally blinked at 16, driving into a fairway bunker and embedding his second shot into the lip of the bunker en route to a double bogey. Koepka smelled blood and stuck his approach to 5 feet, making birdie to take a commanding four-stroke lead. It was over. Koepka signed for a 72-hole total of 9-under 271. With his hands on the Wanamaker Trophy for the third time, Koepka reflected on how failure at the Masters lead to his validating win at Oak Hill.

“I definitely wouldn’t have, I don’t think, won today if that didn’t happen, right?” he said in the aftermath, but as for what specifically he learned from the defeat, he’s not telling. “Definitely take it and keep using it going forward for each event, each major, any time I’m in contention, but I’m not going to share. I can’t give away all the secrets.”

Koepka 2.0 may just be getting started. Heading to Valhalla, Harmon said Koepka is as well-prepared as ever to chase more majors. The hunger remains to get to double-digit majors. “If you can’t get up for the biggest events, I don’t know, I think there’s something wrong with you,” Koepka said at the Masters.

In his only previous start at the Louisville course, at the 2014 PGA, Koepka finished with rounds of 66 and 67 to place 15th. At the Masters in April, he failed to break par in any round and was a non-factor, but he won in his most recent start on LIV, regaining his touch on the greens. North, for one, wouldn’t bet against him to repeat at the PGA Championship as he did in 2018-19.

“He’s a completely different player four weeks a year than he is the other 48 weeks a year, and I love that about him,” North said. “I think the fact that he can raise his game at majors where most people’s games go the other way, that’s really a huge testament to him and his mental makeup and how he just determines that he’s going to beat everybody once he shows up at a major.”

Or as Harmon III put it, he likes climbing Mount Everest.

“He likes being in the death zone. Everybody says they like being up there. But you got to step over dead bodies to get to the top,” he said, “and then you got to step over dead bodies to get back down.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek