FARMINGDALE, NEW YORK | You know who is probably going to win this PGA Championship.
Not the guy who won the Masters.
Not the No. 1 player in the world.
Not the guy trying to complete the career Grand Slam either.
The guy who wins major championships the way some of us grab potato chips – Brooks Koepka.
It’s what he does. He’s won three of the last seven majors he’s played and give him back one swing on the 12th tee at Augusta National on Masters Sunday or an 8-footer on the 18th green that day and he might have denied Tiger Woods another green jacket the way he thwarted Woods at the PGA Championship at Bellerive last August.
This is not a guarantee, only a semi-educated hunch based on the past two years of major championships, the questions Bethpage Black asks and the beautifully direct approach Koepka takes to playing the game’s biggest events.
Call it a variation on the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” axiom.
Sometimes the answer is right in front of you. In golf, A plus B doesn’t always equal C. But it’s a reasonable starting point, reinforced by Koepka’s fourth-place finish at the AT&T Byron Nelson last weekend.
There’s also this: Since 2017, Koepka is 46-under par in major championships, easily the best total of any player.
Koepka has put his own spin on the approach Jack Nicklaus took to winning 18 majors: handle your own business and let the rest of the players beat themselves.
“One hundred fifty six (golfers), so you figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat. From there, you figure about half of them won’t play well, so you’re down to about maybe 35. And then from 35, some of them just – pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys,” Koepka explained Tuesday.
“If you just hang around … 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.”
It’s like Woody Allen said, 80 percent of success in life is just showing up.
No one underestimates Koepka any more. That was an understandable and effective source of motivation last year but it falls flat now.
“Brooks might disagree with this but they’re difficult championships to win,” said Rory McIlroy, who has a 4-3 lead on Koepka in majors won, though he’s in a winless drought that’s going on five years.
Koepka doesn’t suggest they’re easy to win, just easier, which helps explain why 60 percent of his PGA Tour victories are major championships. He admits he focuses better in the biggest events, a tendency he’s working to overcome, while finding a way to be more relaxed during the majors. In a sense, he gears down at the majors.
“I think sometimes you can kind of outpsych yourself,” Koepka said.
Look at Koepka and how he plays and it’s hard to find a place that doesn’t fit him. He’s the essence of the modern player – strong, long and geared to win.
Bethpage Black is, to quote PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh, “tackle football.” There’s a reason they put the warning sign behind the first tee advising golfers the Black course is not the standard test. It’s the same for the pros, who face a layout of more than 7,400 rain-softened yards, covered by 8 acres of sand.
There is a grandeur to the place, said Kerry Haigh, who brilliantly sets up the PGA Championship each year, and it’s a good description. It’s also rugged, a big walk for everyone except John Daly, he of the arthritic knee who has been granted use of a golf cart under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Woods and Lucas Glover won U.S. Opens here and both did it by hitting fairways and greens. The fairways will play wider because there will be less roll and while the greens have slope, they aren’t radically contoured.
Over the past year, Koepka has come to rely on what he calls a “fairway finder” off the tee. It’s a cut driver that developed out of a practice drill. Koepka found himself comfortable with its predictability and it will be a go-to shot for him this week.
“If you can’t find the fairway here, I think you’re really going to run into issues,” Koepka said.
No one underestimates Koepka any more. That was an understandable and effective source of motivation last year but it falls flat now. Sure, half the media room emptied out after Tiger Woods finished his press conference Tuesday morning while Koepka was following him to the podium. That says more about Woods and the media than Koepka.
“Some of it was a little bit manufactured. I think some of it was quite real,” Koepka said.
“I think you’ve got to find a chip or you’ve got to find something to motivate yourself and give you that extra little something going into a tournament or going into an event, whatever it might be, to really want to push you over that line.”
For Koepka now, the motivation is in plain sight. The silver Wanamaker Trophy is on display for everyone to see.
Brooks Koepka came close in the Masters last month. Photo: Lucy Nicholson, Reuters
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