Brooks Koepka is a fascinating study, the way he goes about his business at major championships. He stole the show in Round 1 of the PGA Championship on Thursday, firing a Bethpage Black course record, bogey-free, 7-under 63. He became the first defending champ since the tournament's stroke-play era started in 1958 to have sole possession of first place after the opening round.
And Koepka left several birdie opportunities out there, including the two par 5s, which he parred.
To watch him attack, both physically and mentally, what he admitted was a “brutal” course, is a treat. His mindset is intriguing.
The 29-year-old seems to have perfected the art of not letting anything get into his head that is wasted energy.
At the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, Koepka never complained about the course conditions or setup, while other players did. He just went about his business and defended his title there after winning the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
When I asked him in his Tuesday news conference how he was able to rebound emotionally after coming so close in his second-place Masters finish in April, Koepka replied: “It's just golf. I mean, there's nothing to rebound from. You know, I take it -- yeah, second place, it's not fun, but at the same time, you've just got to move on. It's in the past. I could care less what happened last week or a couple years ago. It's all about this week.”
When he was asked about his winning approach, particularly in majors, Koepka said: ”I think one of the big things that I've learned over the last few years is you don't need to win it. You don't have to try to go win it. Just hang around. If you hang around, good things are going to happen.“So I think that's what's kind of caused me an issue in the regular PGA Tour events," the three-time major champion continued. "I've gone out on Saturday and tried to build a cushion, maybe pressed a little bit too hard and gotten ahead of myself, where in the majors, I just stay in the moment. I never think one hole ahead. I'm not thinking about tomorrow. I'm not thinking about the next shot. I'm just thinking about what I've got to do right then and there. And I kind of dummy it down and make it very simple, and I think that's what helps me.”
Koepka had an 8:20 a.m. tee time Thursday and played with Tiger Woods and Francesco Molinari. They started on the back. Koepka birdied the first hole, draining a 40-footer from just off the green (chipping in from 40 feet) on the difficult par-4 10th. He then birdied 14, 18, 1, 3 and 5 and sank a 30-footer on his last hole, the ninth.
Three of those birdies came on holes that played the most challenging of the round: No. 3 was the fourth toughest; No. 5 was the third toughest, and the 10th hole was the second-most difficult.
Koepka hit several monster shots out of the rough. He said the one he hit on the uphill, par-4, 15th was the best one of the day.
“Luckily enough, it was kind of trampled down a little bit where the fans were," he said. "But I mean, it still wasn't a good lie by any means. But just to get that ball up and on to the same shelf as the pin was on -- because that front, little corner, left-hand corner of the green, you've got to go up over that ridge, and that's an extremely slow putt. But to get it 15 feet short of the hole and get 4 there was probably the best one of the day.”
Asked about the importance of making an early statement out there, especially with all the hype surrounding Woods winning the Masters, Koepka shared: “I mean, I felt like I won this last year. I'm playing good. You know, it was great that Tiger won Augusta, but I mean, we're at a new week now. I've just got to go out there and focus on me. I'm not really concerned about what's going on. You know what you're going to get when you play with him. I mean, obviously everybody in New York is going to be cheering for him, and it's going to be loud, especially if he makes a putt. You've just got to keep battling and find a way to get through it.”
I would think Koepka’s mindset would be what every sports psychologist would try to instill in the athletes they work with: Focus on the task at hand, don’t overanalyze, forget about a bad shot, the loss, the pressure; forget about everything but the next shot. “Dummy it down,” as Koepka described.
That’s so difficult to do when you’re as smart as Koepka is. But Koepka seems to have figured it out. And it’s a pleasure to watch how he doesn’t let his mind get in the way of a great golf game.