Lost in Brooks Koepka’s move to LIV Golf is the roller-coaster journey (including an attempted kidnapping!) he’s taken to become – and remain – the sport’s king of clutch.
Even in an intended moment of hilarity, Brooks Koepka couldn’t shake his steely resolve. While filming a fun Q&A video series at LIV Golf Adelaide in April, we posed a light-hearted question to the now five-time major champion: if you had a warning label, what would it say? It was an open invitation for some quick-fire banter; an opportunity to be self-deprecating or a little jovial to draw some chuckles from our crew. RangeGoats GC skipper Bubba Watson took the bait. “Psycho… Headcase,” he laughed. Dry-witted Englishman Lee Westwood opted for the more risqué reply of “Slippery when wet”, leaving his outspoken Majesticks GC teammate Ian Poulter oddly lost for words. Koepka, though, just gazed straight down the barrel of the camera and deadpanned two words: “Brutal honesty”. It was a one-second snapshot of a straight-shooter who’s made one hell of a living walking the walk, and the odd enemy talking the talk.
Koepka’s Smash GC teammate Matthew Wolff was the latest victim of said brutal honesty. In an interview with Sports Illustrated just days before we went to print, Koepka had this to say about his LIV Golf counterpart: “It’s very tough to have a team dynamic when you’ve got one guy that won’t work, one guy is not going to give any effort, he’s going to quit on the course, break clubs, gets down, bad body language, it’s very tough. I’ve basically given up on him – a lot of talent, but I mean the talent’s wasted.”
Dancing around the truth has never been in Koepka’s repertoire. Neither has not being himself, on and off the course. If we weren’t already convinced about his quantum level of self-assurance, we were left with absolutely no doubt after quizzing him on the one person on the planet he’d love to trade lives with for a week: “I like my life, man. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Fair enough. Who could blame him? The 33-year-old has five major championship trophies on display at home – third only to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson of today’s current crop of players – has made more money than he’ll ever spend after inking a LIV Golf deal worth a reported $US150 million, recently tied the knot with partner Jena Sims and is about to become a dad. Life’s pretty sweet being brutally honest Brooks Koepka. That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps in the road along the way.
While many LIV converts from the PGA Tour have taken sizeable hits to their reputation and likeability in America, conversely, Koepka has never been more popular thanks to his participation in Netflix’s “Full Swing” docuseries. His pain, as it turns out, resonated with the masses after he revealed a more vulnerable side that fans had never seen before. As Golf Digest’s Joel Beall recently wrote, “When Koepka’s inside the ropes he plays the jock, the one who doesn’t emote and is too cool for school. On the show, Koepka was raw, insecure, willing to show that tough-guy persona is a facade to a person that feels he’s not as good as he once was and questions if he has what it takes to be great again. He was not one of legendary conviction. He was a human who was physically and psychologically and emotionally hurt.”
Fast forward a few months and normal service has resumed. Koepka is the reigning PGA champion for a third time. The fragility on full display for Netflixers has gone, along with the crippling knee injury that threatened everything.
With the PGA Tour and LIV Golf remaining in a holding pattern as their bombshell merger takes shape, Koepka is back to being the king of clutch, doing everything better than his peers. He said as much in a fresh sit-down interview with Australian Golf Digest.
Over the coming pages, the big Floridian shares some remarkable tales that have helped shape him as both a golfer and person. He also offers some rare insights into his mental resolve, and how you can find your ruthless streak on the course.
“In my eyes, I don’t work hard enough,” Koepka admits. “But then I look at what everybody else is doing and I realise, I am. It becomes even clearer why it seems that much easier for me when I’m winning, because I’ve spent more hours doing certain things. I’m taking care of my body better than everybody else, even through all my injuries. I know I’m practising harder. I know I’m spending more hours in the gym. If you really want to win, you’ve got to want it.”
Koepka’s long-time coach Claude Harmon III seconds those claims.
“Brooks has the perfect attitude,” he says. “When he plays bad, he walks off the course and says, ‘Let’s fix this right now.’ When it’s fixed, he says, ‘I’m gonna shoot low tomorrow.’”
From the car crash that steered him towards golf, to escaping an attempted kidnapping in Kenya (“I was tiny as hell back then”) and eating horse meat in Kazakhstan (“We’d eaten pasta three nights in a row!”), Koepka reflects on a wild ride that’s got a few twists and turns left in it yet.
This is Brooks Koepka – brutally honest – straight from the horse’s mouth.
Australian Golf Digest: It is, quite literally, an accident that you’re even here talking to us today as one of the world’s best golfers, isn’t it?
Brooks Koepka: Yeah, you could say it’s been a different journey to most. I played a little bit of golf with my dad and my brother when I was growing up. It was just the thing we did on the weekends. I loved it. But I really was focused on baseball. I played basketball and a little [ice] hockey. I was having a go at pretty much everything. And then I got into a car accident, which was pretty bad (Brooks’ nanny ran a red light and got T-boned by another vehicle). I was sitting in the front and broke my whole face, pretty much. My brother was in the car as well, but he was so little, he was in a [booster] seat. It’s kind of crazy, but I couldn’t do any contact sports for a good bit, and so golf just became the main focus for me. From there, well, here I am today. I fell in love with it and I’ve enjoyed it ever since. It’s been cool. I would say it was definitely more of a family activity when I was younger. Before that, and then pretty much after that car accident, it was just baseball. I dropped everything else; it was baseball and golf. Then from there I just made the decision to go the golf route.
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How daunting was it to face the prospect of no physical sports?
I didn’t think too much of it. I mean, it sucked. All your friends are getting to go play baseball and basketball, so you end up missing the whole season, which at the time wasn’t fun. But I still got to see some of the guys, just because we were pretty close. Even my best friend, he caddies for my brother. I still hang out with most of those boys pretty much when I’m off the golf course as well. So, got a good relationship, but it’s one of those things where you’ve just got to move on from it. You can’t dwell on it. All the time I would’ve put into the other sports, I just put into golf, so I just kept myself busy, kept my mind on it. But definitely as a kid, it did suck, I’m not going to lie.
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Do you still think about the accident or get flashbacks from it?
No, I don’t think about it at all. It is what it is. It happened. It’s unfortunate what happened to everybody else in the car accident, but at the same time I guess it turned out pretty good for me, so I don’t try to look back on it too much. It’s one of those things where I forget about it a good bit, but at the same time, I’m reminded of it occasionally. I remember pretty much everything that happened at the accident, all the way up ’til pretty much T-boning the other car pretty good. I just remember waking up and looking down at my T-shirt – I was wearing a white T-shirt – and it was just red [with blood]. And then I turned around to look at my brother, because I was in the front seat and he was in a booster seat, and he bit his lip as soon as he saw my face [laughs]. So, then he started bleeding and had blood gushing from his mouth [laughs]. The paramedics couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him or where the blood was coming from. I told them he’d bitten his lip [laughs]. But I think my injury was pretty obvious. It was pretty bad, but at least I can look back with some humour in it all.
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After the accident, you chose to pursue golf for a little bit. How quickly did it take to get hooked?
I think it just propelled my interest. I mean, I already had the golf bug, but it just took it to a level where it was like, I just want to do this every day. And as a little kid, I couldn’t do anything, that’s all I wanted to do was just play golf. So, I just went from there, and then all of a sudden I kept practising, played a hell of a lot more and, I think probably when I was about 15, I remember telling my dad while he was driving the car… my stepmum was in the front seat and my brother and I were in the back, and I told him that there was a guy, Ty Tryon, a high-school kid who went to Q-School and made the PGA Tour when I was probably about 13. I was like, “I’m not going to college. I’m done with this.” And he just about wrecked the car when he heard that. So, it’s quite funny. I guess probably three years after that accident I was pretty locked into the belief that this is what I wanted to do for a career.
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Was there ever a moment where you thought about going back to basketball and baseball?
No. I think baseball is what I truly loved – that was my first love. So, it’s like anything that’s your first love, you always remember it. But then golf is what you could say I’ve grown to love. But I have no regrets about anything. I mean, I wish I could have been playing baseball – it’s my first love, that’s what I wanted to do my whole life. I wish I was [Major League Baseball star] Mike Trout. But I’m not, so I’ve got to play golf, and I’m not complaining at all. It’s been pretty cool. I’m living a good life.
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Is it true you beat your dad to win your local club championship and received the champion’s car spot for a year? What did Dad say about that?
Yeah, it’s true. I think I actually beat him a couple of times. I remember I wasn’t old enough to drive so he was all pissed off because he had the parking spot and then he wanted to use it the entire time I was champion. So, I think he got to use it for about six or seven years in a row [laughs]. Dad was a good golfer back in the day, not so much anymore. I would say he was a 4 or 5 handicap, so he was pretty good. And then I smoked him and never got to use the damn parking spot because I wasn’t allowed. Dad wouldn’t let me. He lived probably half a mile from the golf course, and he would never let me drive, even though I had my learner’s permit. He would never let me just take the car. I was like, “Dad, I’ve literally got to hop on the road for a quarter-mile… just let me drive it over there!” But he would never let me do it. Probably for the best [laughs]. I just remember thinking, One time, I just want to pull up to my parking spot in a car just one time.
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College then came calling. Tell us about that experience.
I loved it. I didn’t have too many offers coming out of high school. I think it was pretty much Florida State and one or two others outside Florida but we didn’t grow up with a bunch of money, so I couldn’t afford to go out of state. I remember walking onto Florida State… I must have been there for about five minutes and my mum was with me when I toured it, and I told her, “This is where I’m going to be.” So, we just wasted the coach’s time – Trey Jones. We wasted his time for the next two days before I actually committed to it. But college was a lot of fun. I loved it. I’m glad I went all four years. I had a blast. Like everybody says, I wish I could go back now knowing what I know, but it’s a cool place to be. I just went back in November for probably the first time in 10 years (Koepka was inducted into Florida State University’s Hall of Fame) so that was pretty cool, just to see how much things have changed.
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Any advice for Aussies pursuing the American college system?
Whatever you’re going to do, just dedicate yourself. Honestly, I think one thing that I learned is college can either make you or break you. It can go one of two ways. You see kids that can get caught up in having fun, partying hard, doing whatever, and lose track of what the real goal is. I think I went my whole junior or senior year without drinking. My mum was diagnosed with cancer during my junior year, and I just remember thinking, Bills are racking up. I’ve got no option. I need to figure out how to make it so we could pay some bills.
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Your pro career didn’t go to plan initially, having failed to advance out of second stage of PGA Tour Q-School in 2012. So, you chose to go to Europe to try your luck on its secondary Challenge Tour. Tell us about this decision.
Yeah, it was definitely a different decision. I’d known Pete Uihlein was over there cutting his teeth on the Challenge Tour and I remember meeting my agent at the time and being told, “You’re not good enough to get a start on the PGA Tour or Web.com. You’re not that guy.” They weren’t wrong. So, the only way I could work my way up was basically play four days on the Challenge Tour, make cuts, go out there and play well, guarantee myself seven events, and then try to move my way up on the system. I could have just gone and cut it on the Hooters Tour and other smaller mini-tour stuff, but there’s no way out of it – you’re just waiting for Q-School. So, for me, I just felt like if you get a chance to work your way up, just go do it. And then next thing I know, I end up winning a Challenge Tour event very early on, which helped gain status for the following year. I then went to both Q-Schools and failed there, so that was a bit of a disappointment, but at least I knew I had somewhere to go, I had a place to play, which is always a relief in golf because if you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, it can be quite difficult. You see it a lot with the mini-tour guys and stuff like that. They just don’t know what to plan for, and it’s tough and stressful. Anyway, the next Challenge Tour season rolls around and I win three times [to secure a European Tour card]. I’d started working with Claude Harmon III around that time too. From there it suddenly was all about, How do I get to the PGA Tour? How do I get myself in the world’s top 50? All the goals and benchmarks that I set for myself, I just kept climbing and ticking them off.
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You’re on record as saying your early days in Europe were the coolest experiences you’ve had in golf. Why?
Well, I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but I studied geography. In fact, geography was my major in college. I knew about everywhere in the world. I knew capitals, I knew different landmarks, different countries and the cool places to go see. And to be perfectly honest, Americans really don’t travel outside the States… let’s be real. Everywhere else in the world, they’re more open to travelling around the globe and seeing different places. If Americans want to go skiing, they’re going to go to Colorado. Whereas anybody else in Europe, Asia or Australia, it doesn’t matter, they might go to Switzerland for a new adventure or a beautiful experience.
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Why is that do you think? Why do Americans loathe to travel?
Because I think sometimes things are a little too easy.
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The belief that they have it all already?
Yeah, I just think sometimes it can be quite easy, right? I mean, you guys in Australia know. America is quite big too, so you can travel five hours and be on the other coast and it feels like a long time, or you could fly six hours and you could be in the UK. You always do what you’re comfortable with, and I think that’s part of the problem.
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You’re a geography fan who played in some quirky places during your stint in Europe. You must have returned with some good stories?
Well, I narrowly avoided a kidnapping situation in Kenya, which was quite interesting.
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Our flight got delayed and there was a taxi set up for us – one of those companies you are supposed to use because things can be dangerous with everything that was going on in the country at the time. So, we had a taxi organised to meet us and take us to our hotel but because our flight was delayed, we didn’t land until about 3am. Of course, the company wasn’t there waiting to collect us. So, me and another guy found one of the only taxis that was there. I remember there were a few other players that were there, but they were a little better than us at the time, so they had the car set up to take them straight to the hotel. But it just wasn’t meant to be for the two of us. So, we got in the car and the situation got a little weird. The driver took us to a part of town you didn’t want to be in and he wanted our phones, and we ended up pulling up to a petrol station, and everything was dark, completely blacked out, no lights on, nothing. And suddenly three guys popped out from under a blanket and were coming for the car. We pretty much had to, well, we had to get out, I’ll put it that way.
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You had to run for your life?
Yeah. Thank God we got away because I was tiny as hell back then [laughs].
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That must have been up there with the scariest moments of your life?
It’s funny now, but I remember texting my agent and my parents and switching on the international roaming on my phone so they could track my location. Things must have been serious because I never had roaming on because I couldn’t afford the bill on my phone. It wasn’t a flat $10 all-day rate like today’s phone contracts. An international pass back in the day was a lot of money. Whatever roaming you were going to do, it was going to cost a lot. I remember I had to share my location with my parents, because I was like, I’m going to make sure no matter what, I got this phone with me in case anything happens. But I was texting them, my agent, and it was a bit of an interesting situation. But the hotel was only a few kilometres from the airport, and about two-and-a-half hours later, we eventually made it there.
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That story even tops you eating horse meat in Kazakhstan.
Yeah, I mean, I would definitely say Kenya was probably more memorable… more life-threatening. But I honestly just enjoyed being around good friends and seeing the world together. It was a pretty close-knit group of guys. There was Sihwan Kim, Scott Pinckney, who’s a good buddy of mine, and Pete Uihlein. There were about four or five of us that were basically just going around travelling, and we loved it. We had a great time. It was a bunch of fun just going to all these different countries and experiencing different things.
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Speaking of travelling, you visited Australia for the first time in April for LIV Golf Adelaide. That tournament must have exceeded all your expectations?
It was awesome. The amount of fans that came, the incredible energy, obviously my brother [Chase Koepka] having the hole-in-one, which was undoubtedly the shot of LIV Golf to date and a shot heard all around the world. The respect everybody’s got for Cam Smith, the Ripper GC team, it was pretty cool to see. I played with Cam the first two days and just the love that you guys have for him was pretty special to see. Playing with him was cool to see. Honestly, I will say this, LIV Golf Adelaide had more energy than this year’s US Open, without a doubt. It had the energy of a very, very big tournament.
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On the back of Adelaide’s overwhelming success, there’s been a lot of noise around a second LIV Golf event coming Down Under. Do you see that happening?
Yeah, I think so. It was a bucket-list thing for me. I’d never been to Australia. I was scheduled to go down for the 2019 Presidents Cup, but I was injured and couldn’t play. But Greg [Norman] had, I don’t want to say promised, but he had hyped it up to the expectations of what actually came through. Every time I talked to him personally, or we were on the phone texting back and forth, on phone calls, he was telling me that LIV Golf Adelaide was going to be the best event that LIV’s ever had and going to have. And it lived up to it. It probably exceeded it even more, which is pretty cool. It’s a place that I’m looking forward to going back to. Guys are still talking about it to this day so it was definitely the best event thus far in my opinion, and hopefully we can top it and just keep growing it.
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Anything you really want to tick off in Australia on your next trip?
Well, we went to see the kangaroos this year. I’d never seen kangaroos before, so that was pretty cool. I don’t know… koalas maybe? I would say maybe just go see more of Australia. I’d like to go see the Great Barrier Reef, check out that place and go in the water. Maybe do a shark dive and do some different stuff and see different parts. As long as I avoid the snakes at all costs. That’s one thing I don’t want to f–k with. I’m afraid of snakes, dude. I don’t do snakes. I’ll go anywhere, just as long as I can avoid them [laughs].
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What about a ‘shooey?’ Drinking beer out of someone’s shoe doesn’t appeal to you?
I’ve never done one. I think it’s disgusting as hell. Plus, I’ll be honest with you, it’s going to sound ‘boujee’ as hell, but I’ve got a really nice sneaker collection and I ain’t planning on ruining my shoes with that [laughs].
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You mentioned Greg Norman earlier. I was fascinated in Adelaide when we asked you to describe him in three words or less and you said “passionate, intense and caring”. Can you elaborate on your dealings with him and what influence he’s had on your career in recent years?
I’ve known his son probably almost since I was in high school, but I didn’t really know Greg as well as I have maybe over the last seven, eight years. But he’s always been extremely nice to me. He’s been, like I said, very caring. You might think one thing when you see an article or see a story, but then when you actually sit down and get to talk with him, you realise that he’s actually pretty passionate about everything that he does. He gives it 110 percent, whether it be business, work or family. He’s a caring guy, and he gives a lot more, especially when you start to build on that relationship. And it’s something that I’ve enjoyed. It’s been cool for me to see, especially over the past year-and-a-half when I’ve got to be with him a lot more, and just the little sit-downs and chats we have, whether it be about life, business or anything going forward, which just shows that he just cares about everybody as individuals.
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You ticked off major No.5 in May. What’s next for Brooks Koepka?
Just trying to tick the next box. Trying to get to double digits in the majors, keep racking up wins, and… I don’t know. Life’s about to change here for me in the next month or so, so we’ll see.
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Oh yes, you’re becoming a dad! Are you ready for fatherhood? Is fatherhood ready for the steely Brooks Koepka?
[Laughs] I’m definitely prepared. It’s been fun getting to this point. [Pregnancy] is a cool experience for anyone, but I’ve been able to separate my professional life and my work life pretty easily. I guess now it will just be put to the test. We’ll see.
BROOKS’ BRAIN TRAINING
LESSON 1: UNDERSTAND THAT THE BEST NEVER QUIT
In terms of improvement, Koepka is most interested in the mental side. He once called the late Kobe Bryant his favourite athlete because of the NBA star’s mental toughness and work ethic: “I’m really big into the mindset thing. Kobe, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods – they sacrificed anything to be great, did anything to win, and it really, really bothered them to lose. It was actually quite amazing to see.” Koepka recounts a match with Michael Jordan at the Bear’s Club. “I was 1 up on the 17th tee and called out the score. MJ looks at me and says, ‘Fourth quarter, baby.’ I was like, Really? Then, with strokes, he wins the last two holes. How he did that – that’s what I’m after.”
LESSON 2: LEARN TO HATE LOSING
“People often talk about my ability under pressure in big tournaments like majors. I think that comes from my attitude growing up. It’s either all or nothing. I can’t stand losing. I hate it. It drives me nuts. It keeps me awake at night. From when I was a young boy, I was always told that I was never it. I was never the kid winning a lot. Between the age of 10 and 20 I was never the guy, there was always somebody else that was better. It ate at me, and I just couldn’t stand it. So now I make sure I’m no longer that kid. I make sure I’m working harder than everyone else, so much so that when I’m on the road, I really don’t have many free hours. I’m busy trying to get better.”
LESSON 3: WATCH YOURSELF
“I used to be a hothead. I’d break clubs because I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t hit it inside 15 feet with a 7-iron from 195 yards, and it would drive me nuts. I had this guy from Holland doing some body language work with me because my body language was always pretty poor. You could pretty much read what was going on with me just by looking at me. I remember this guy used to hide in the trees and secretly film me while I was practising. He would then make me re-watch my round and what was going on with my body language and conduct. It was a shock to the system, and I learned a lot from that.”
LESSON 4: SWITCH OFF FOR BIG MOMENTS
“Different players have different triggers for when it’s game time. For some, putting the glove back on signals it’s time to get into ‘the zone’. For others, the focus returns when they arrive at their ball. For me, I’m in a bubble for the entire week of a tournament. I get really quiet and the bigger the event, the more I’m definitely not speaking. I don’t really talk to anybody. In fact, I could walk by my whole team and not even know that I walked by them. They’ve learned to not take it personally. I think they’ve known this for a while. If it’s Sunday, if I’m in contention, I can walk by anybody and not even know who I walk by. It’s just one of those things. My mind’s in a different place. That’s obviously not going to win you too many friends during your social round or Saturday fourball, but try blocking out everything between the occasional shot. Limit verbal interactions with your playing partners for short periods and just see where your mind goes.”