Sneak Peek: This story will appear in the Jan. 28 edition of Global Golf Post.
Brooks Koepka is done for the day in Hawaii, a gym session and a practice round having been checked off his to-do list, as he settles into a chair in the players’ dining area at Kapalua’s Plantation Course.
The place is empty, seemingly everyone else having gone off to enjoy a late afternoon in Maui. Koepka has some beach time booked closer to sunset when he will sit and write out his 2019 goals, some professional, some personal, some just for fun.
In bed by 10 p.m. every night on the road is a big one. He did it in 2018 and that worked out pretty well with two major championship victories, so it’s back on the list. He won multiple times. Check. He missed his only cut in Canada and that one stayed with him like an itchy bug bite.
In the quiet dining room, Koepka pushes back the brim of his cap and he’s practically transformed.
He plays golf under a hat pulled low and tight, like a helmet that guards him. At times, Koepka seems tough to find under his cap and he likes it that way, working in his own world and in his own way. He’s won three of the last seven major championships played so the look fits him as snugly as his shirts.
Koepka, 28, insists there’s a sizable difference between the stoic image he projects on the golf course and the person is he away from the game and the simple act of pushing his cap back has the effect of revealing him.
“A lot of times, I think I’m so focused on what I have to do that you don’t really see the true perception of me,” Koepka says.
“I enjoy hanging out. After the round, it doesn’t matter if I shot 78 or 60, you’re still going to get the same me. I’m going to laugh, joke. On the course, I’m one way. Off, I’m completely different.”
Can Koepka prove it?
Can he work a kitchen like a professional? Does he become the life of the party when he’s out with friends? Can he dance?
“I can dance. I know that,” Koepka says, smiling at himself. “I’ve got some rhythm.”
Does he go out dancing?
“Every once in a while. I do have a little rhythm,” he says.
“A lot of times, I think I’m so focused on what I have to do that you don’t really see the true perception of me.” – Brooks Koepka
There you have it. Just when you thought Koepka was all muscles and major championships, he’s more than that. He’d like to world to know more about him, understanding that he hasn’t shared much of himself beyond the golf course.
This from a man who used the “no respect” angle as part of his motivation while winning a second consecutive U.S. Open and the PGA Championship last summer. Koepka acknowledges that angle is played out now but it’s true he hasn’t yet captured imaginations like some other players.
He’s never going to be a chatterbox like Jordan Spieth or work the galleries like Phil Mickelson but Koepka has his own way. He has that slow, rolling walk that seems to be stamped into the DNA of athletes and it would be easy to cast him in what Hollywood used to call the strong, silent type.
Yet Koepka may be the most likely player on the PGA Tour to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger on the far side of the world.
Born and raised around the water in South Florida, Koepka spends his idle time at home cruising in his boat, taking a short ride to dinner with his girlfriend, Jena Sims, or just enjoying the freedom and feeling that comes with the salt-air smell and a bobbing ride in the great wide open, waving to neighbors and fellow pros Dustin Johnson, Will MacKenzie and Jeff Overton as he floats past.
If he’s going for dinner, Koepka loves sushi but he’ll also order off the kids’ menu, getting chicken fingers and fries, when he allows himself to cheat on his diet.
But truly getting away, like stepping into the page of an atlas, is Koepka’s literal happy place.
When he and his buddy Peter Uihlein set out to play the European Challenge Tour in the summer of 2012, Koepka loved the adventure. He played golf in India, Kenya, Kazakhstan and seemingly everywhere in between. He lives the line “Better to see something once than hear about it a thousand times.”
“If I’m going somewhere, I’m going overseas or I’m going to a different country. Just rent a scooter. Go into whatever town that might be and just go hang with the locals. To me, that’s the most fun,” Koepka said.
Koepka was in Thailand – his favorite place to visit – two years ago with his caddie, Ricky Elliott, and the two headed out together.
“(After) a couple of hours, Rick said he was leaving. All right, I’ll just keep going into town,” Koepka recalls.
“I hopped on the back of a couple of people’s scooters and they just took me around. I hitchhiked my way back to the hotel where we were staying with just random people. That’s the stuff … I like soaking myself in the culture of these places.”
Koepka talks about the attitude of the Thai people, the way he finds himself staring at the scenery in Switzerland and the gold-rich architecture in Kazakhstan. Little wonder that Koepka was a geography major at Florida State.
“It’s so much fun seeing these places. I have probably have more experience than 99 percent of the people for how much I’ve gone,” Koepka says.
“To go see all these places and the different attitudes these people have. It’s always interesting when you talk to them about their view of Americans and how they view American politics. It’s always quite interesting to get their views on it and how they go about things and how simple life is and in other parts of the world how they just view life as the coolest thing where I think a lot of Americans just take it for granted.
“I really try to embrace that, hey I’m only here for so long, I just wanted to enjoy it. That’s my favorite part. Just diving into all these different cultures.”
What’s an adventure without some true adventure?
Koepka was in Kenya a few years ago with George Murray, a professional golfer from Scotland, and they hitched a ride from the airport around 2:30 a.m.
Something didn’t feel right about it. The ride was taking too long.
“We pulled up to a gas station and a couple of guys came out. It was pitch black and a couple of guys came out under some blankets and a hood trying to get in the car,” Koepka says.
“I called my parents to tell them where I was and turned on my location services so they could see the phone and at least they could find me if I was dead.
“(The driver) tried to take us down a different alley and he wanted our phones. We made it and we’re alive. But it was a little tense there for a little while.”
Despite a playing schedule that keeps Koepka hopscotching from place to place, his wanderlust remains. Before coming to Hawaii, Koepka had been home for a week when he decided to hop a plane with Sims to Jamaica.
They befriended a bartender there and spent much of the week with him, getting a local’s tour of the town where they were staying.
“That’s the stuff I love,” Koepka says.
“A lot of guys come out wherever it might be and their whole experience might be how they play. It’s the same thing. It’s where you spend a lot of your time. You just have to diversify yourself.”
Koepka doesn’t know how many countries he’s visited. Sims’ mother gave them a map and suggested they scratch off every country they’ve visited.
“It would be cool to scratch off pretty much most of the countries. It would be pretty sweet,” Koepka says.
All the passport stamps may work in Koepka’s favor on the golf course. Before he won the U.S. Open at Erin Hills in 2017, Koepka went to Turks and Caicos for a few days. Prior to his U.S. Open win at Shinnecock Hills last June, Koepka went back to Turks and Caicos with a different group of friends. Same destination. Same result.
He didn’t have time to get away before the PGA Championship he won in St. Louis but if you’re in Turks and Caicos a couple of weeks before the U.S. Open this summer, keep an eye out for Koepka.
It’s easy to imagine Koepka on a beach someplace, the sun shining on him while he thinks about what he’s accomplished already. Only 28 players have won more majors than Koepka and one more would tie him with Raymond Floyd, Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy among others.
Koepka isn’t ready to look back. He’s still looking ahead.
“I feel like I’m almost playing catch up. Someone asked me a while ago if I had actually taken it all in and reflected on it. I told them no, I don’t want to reflect on it,” Koepka says.
“I’m in the prime of my career. When I’m done I’ll sit back and reflect on it. When I’m 50 years old, retired, I’ll reflect on everything I’ve done and that will be pretty cool. I’m still in my career. I don’t want to look back on it.”
In a game that demands self-centeredness, Koepka is able to look outside himself. He keeps a tight team close to him and credits his coach (Claude Harmon III), his caddie and others with helping him get where he is.
He was named 2018 player of the year by his PGA Tour peers and by the Golf Writers Association of America. Koepka ascended to No. 1 in the world and when the Masters rolls around in April, Koepka will be on the short list of favorites at Augusta National.
Still, the pre-tournament focus will likely to be on others. Can Tiger Woods win another green jacket? Can Rory McIlroy complete the career Grand Slam? Can Jordan Spieth get it back?
Koepka has watched himself in tournaments and he’s been struck at times by how unemotional he seems.
“You watch it and sometimes you’re like, oh, I really didn’t smile,” Koepka says.
He is still haunted by the memory of blowing a three-stroke lead on the back nine of his first regular PGA Tour event, the Frys.com Open, in 2013. All he could think about was how cool it felt to be on the verge of his first tour victory and all that would come with it. He was smiling, soaking it in – and then he finished third.
Never again, Koepka told himself.
That doesn’t mean the man who loves nothing better than seeing the world is intent on building a wall around himself.
“I’m trying to open up a little more and let people more into my real life, not just what you see on the golf course,” Koepka says.
“I’m trying to let people more into who I really am. You can love me or hate me, it’s not going to break my heart but you kind of get an idea of who I really am. Then you can make your decision from there.”
Down the mountainside from the Kapalua clubhouse, the Pacific Ocean shimmers and the beach beckons. Koepka is heading in that direction.
To let the sunshine in.
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