AUGUSTA — In his lowest moments, Brooks Koepka thought seriously about quitting.
Golf was his job, not his obsession, and for an 18-month stretch, his job was making him miserable. His body was a wreck, his confidence was depleted, and when he stood over the ball, he felt lost. He was embarrassed and in pain, physical and emotional, to the point where he felt like he was going to snap.
When he missed the cut at the Masters in 2022, Koepka signed his scorecard, walked into the player’s parking lot at Augusta, and in brief a fit of rage, he tried to put his fist through the back window of his courtesy car.
“Not once, but twice,” Kopeka said Friday. “First time didn't go, so figured try it again.”
He wasn’t successful.
“Wasn’t strong enough, I guess,” Koepka said. “The ride home was pretty silent. Just a lot of frustration. I guess Mercedes makes a pretty good back window.”
Koepka shared that story not long after shooting 67 in the second round of the Masters, a tournament he now leads by four shots going into the weekend. It was his second straight round that felt like a throwback to a different time, a time when he seemed like a boa constrictor in major championships, slowly squeezing the life out of other golfers with a quiet intensity of an apex predator.
There was a time when it seemed unlikely we’d ever see this version of Koepka again. Now it seems we’ll spend the weekend pondering if he’s about to pass Rory McIlroy in total majors.
“If I wasn't going to be able to move the way I wanted to, I didn't want to play the game anymore,” Koepka said, detailing how injuries to his knee and hip had him pondering retirement. “It's just that simple. There was definitely moments of that. Last year was pretty tough. Just a lot of frustration.”
Koepka has been, from the beginning, an integral cog in LIV’s plan to upend the world of professional golf. His signing last year after the U.S. Open was one of the bigger surprises and one of Greg Norman’s biggest coups. But it has been interesting, in recent months, to see Koepka offering LIV a lukewarm endorsement in public while rumors percolate that he has some regrets, even though he is contractually bound to LIV for the foreseeable future. He played a practice round with Rory McIlroy on Tuesday and made it clear they communicate regularly. Asked directly after his round if his decision to join LIV would have been harder if he’d been healthy, Koepka didn’t exactly give the kind of answer Norman would like to boast about.
“Honestly, yeah, probably, if I'm being completely honest,” Koepka said. “I think it would have been. But I'm happy with the decision I made.”
Whatever the future of LIV is, and however you feel about sportswashing (and hypocrisy, and the torture and murder of journalists, and What About China, et cetera, et cetera…) the last two days at Augusta have made it clear that golf is a lot more interesting when Koepka is in the mix, throwing darts with his irons and delivering little digs in press conferences.
He is the best kind of rogue in a sport where politeness typically rules the roost. Koepka spends a lot of time trying to convince people he doesn’t love golf, and that he’s too cool for this shit. And perhaps that is true, and what makes him unlikeable in some circles. He has a way of seeming dismissive and dickish when he’s trying to be honest, like when he told Golf Digest he didn’t get the fuss over the Ryder Cup and thought the event took him too much out of his regular routine. Paul Azinger said he thought Koepka should give up his spot on the team if he wasn’t all in. Masters champion Ian Woosnam blasted him as “arrogant” and insisted he “Get a life!”
But I’ve always had a soft spot for him. It’s fun for the drama of the sport when he punches back and shows what a dominant force he can be when healthy. It’s fun when he backs up his tough guy bravado, not by punching out windows but by stunting on fields full of shrinking violets.
I thought it was an eye-rolling decision when he played in the 2021 Masters just 19 days after he underwent surgery for a shattered kneecap and damaged ligaments. What was he trying to prove, other than he was a hardo? But from Koepka’s perspective, I was looking at it the wrong way. All of us were. He might not love golf, but he loved majors.
“I've missed enough majors,” Koepka said. “I missed this one in … I think it was the year P-Reed won. I missed the major Bryson won. I missed like three or four through that whole stretch of 2016 to 2020. I missed a good bit of them. I was, I don't know, just tired of it. I felt like glass that was always breaking. It's not fun. But I feel a lot better now. To be here is special. It's a special event.”
Getting back required not only a lot of rehab work on his body but also swallowing a good amount of pride. Koepka fired his instructor Claude Harmon III in March of 2021 after eight years together, convinced he needed to hear a different voice in his ear as he struggled to find his game. But after several frustrating finishes during LIV’s 2022 season, he felt like he’d bottomed out.
“I think I got probably to the low point when we were at Trump's place in Bedminster,” Koepka said. “Walked in the locker room, and I think my physio Marc Wahl was waiting for that true low point to hit. I said, ‘I think I need to go back to Claude and start working with Claude again. Doing it on my own wasn't working for me.’ ”
In the midst of it all, Koepka agreed to participate in the first season of Full Swing on Netflix, a decision that many people in golf have been wondering if he regretted once his episode came out. Quite the opposite, Koepka says.
“People probably don't think I'm as open as what I really am,” he said. “I'll tell you exactly how I'm feeling at the time, how I'm feeling in the moment, and that's -- I'm pretty vulnerable, too, away from the golf course. I've always said what you see on the golf course isn't what you get behind closed doors.”
If Koepka does win the Masters, it would be a great outcome for LIV Golf, but it would also be an entertaining outcome for golf in general. Koepka and Patrick Reed play the heel far better than some of their co-workers, and while Koepka is infinitely more talented than Reed, if the two of them have a lifetime exemption into the Masters, it would make for a tasty decade of potential party crashing.
Even this year’s Masters has managed to produce a little controversy for Koepka, as rules officials from the tournament have twice called he and playing partner Gary Woodland in to review an incident from Thursday’s round where Koepka’s caddie appeared to be signaling to Woodland’s caddie Brennan “Butch” Little what club Koepka hit into 15 green. That’s a two-shot penalty under the rules of golf, but both players have been adamant that wasn’t the case.
“I asked Butchy if he saw what he hit. He said no,” Woodland said. “Luckily for us because Brooks ended up hitting 5-iron. I hit 5-iron. I asked Butchy what the club was, and he said it's a choked-up perfect 5. I hit my shot. When we were walking down, I asked Brooks what he hit, and he said 5. If I would have known that, I probably would have hit 6-iron, and I would have hit 6-iron in the middle of the water. Luckily for me, I didn't know what he hit. That's the end of it.”
Koepka told a similar story and added that he was called in a second time by rules officials to testify whether he’d flashed five fingers with his left hand. He insisted he had not.
“I don't know if you're supposed to take your glove off with your fist closed or what now,” Koepka said.
Koepka, of all people, knows how important club selection at Augusta National can be. He might have a Masters already if he’d know what club to hit into No. 12 on Sunday in 2019, when he and Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau all hit the ball into the water and Tiger Woods found the center of the green on his way to a fifth green jacket. Making hard choices about the wind and the carry distance is an essential part of golf, as we were reminded that day. Player and caddie ought to make that decision alone, as Woods and Joe LaCava did at that moment.
Would Brooks feel differently about those kinds of scenarios if Woods had asked Molinari what club he’d just dunked in the water so he could club off that decision? It’s impossible to say. But a stroke on Thursday can have the same meaning on Sunday when they’re added up in the final tally.
If nothing else, it makes Koepka’s weekend rounds all the more interesting. It’s possible a Ball Don’t Lie situation looms. It’s also possible that it won’t matter, and the controversy will be forgotten by Sunday afternoon as Koepka marches to victory.
He has a way of smashing narratives with his best golf, which is a lot more fun and rewarding than trying to smash car windows.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.