This week would have been PGA Championship week if not for the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. GolfChannel.com writers Ryan Lavner and Rex Hoggard look back at Brooks Koepka’s back-to-back wins in 2018 and ’19, his major chances when the PGA Tour resumes play and his assumed confidence issues earlier this year.
Ryan Lavner: Rex, this would have been PGA Championship week (check back in early August for that), and Brooks Koepka would be going for the three-peat. Before we get into the historical significance of that, what stood out to you about his two PGA wins in 2018 and ’19?
Rex Hoggard: His ability to find another gear. No one, not even Tiger, has proven themselves so adept at transitioning from a regular Tour event to a major like Brooks. In fairness, Tiger was “on” all the time. But with Brooks, he seems to become a different player on the toughest courses against the deepest fields. I honestly don’t think he needs any extra motivation here, but it’s really been overlooked how impressive that is.
Lavner: It seemed like, in 2018, he was still searching for validation, even with the two U.S. Open titles. I remember talking to his swing coach, Claude Harmon III, and he kept asking: What’s this guy gotta do to get his due? There was a hint of exasperation in his voice, after seeing how much attention we were paying to one-time major winners like Justin Thomas. But Koepka’s shootout win at Bellerive – staring down his idol Adam Scott, then blowing past Tiger – was proof that this guy needs to be taken seriously.
Hoggard: Agree. Bellerive was his “MJ” moment. His victory at Erin Hills was (unfairly) dismissed because of the course, and somehow people had similar arguments about Shinnecock (2018 U.S. Open), but Bellerive had it all: a tough, demanding course and a loaded leaderboard that kept coming at him. That’s when I got out of the Brooks-doubting business.
Lavner: What’d you take away from his win last year at Bethpage? He has called the first two rounds of that PGA the best two days of golf in his life, he built this enormous lead, and then he nearly frittered it all away.
Hoggard: The best two days followed by arguably the worst two days of his major championship career. It’s weird, but I never thought he’d lose even when things were unraveling on Sunday, which is a testament to how much respect there is for him. It was an ugly victory, but those are sometimes the best. Can you honestly say you doubted him on Sunday?
Lavner: Not necessarily doubt, but even in victory it may have slightly dinged his major rep after he nearly coughed up a six-shot lead with eight holes to play. Think about what had transpired a month earlier, at the Masters. He had a chance to make Tiger sweat it out over the final few holes but he missed makeable birdie putts on 17 and 18 to let Woods cruise home. Then, once again in crunch time, Koepka made four consecutive bogeys on the back nine at Bethpage and almost suffered one of the worst collapses in major history. To be fair, he pulled off the shots he needed to – that mammoth drive on 15 comes to mind, and his hack out of the cabbage on 18 was actually quite difficult – but it still made me think, if only for a moment, “Hmmm, this guy might not be Teflon in majors.”
Hoggard: Imperfect, sure, but I never went there, simply because he’s conditioned the audience, in a short amount of time, to expect this machine-like performance in majors. To your point, I agree it shed some light on that shield he’d built up around him and that continued into this season and would have created a lot of questions heading into this week had the championship not been rescheduled.
Lavner: It’s been nearly a century since a player won three consecutive PGAs: Walter Hagen did it in the mid-1920s, when the event was played under a match-play format. Where would you rank a Koepka three-peat historically?
Hoggard: Any time you can start a sentence, “Tiger never did it” speaks volumes, but given his play this season, I’m not sure he would have been atop my list of favorites. That said, a third consecutive PGA would have solidified his status as his generation’s greatest major player.
Lavner: And personally, I think a U.S. Open three-peat (which he nearly accomplished last year at Pebble Beach) would have ranked as the greater achievement. No matter what the USGA says, it’s still the toughest test in golf. But history is history, and some of the game’s greats haven’t been able to go back-to-back-to-back. But you bring up a great point. Brooks didn’t have his best stuff to start 2020. Besides the well-documented injury issues, what was going on here?
Hoggard: I can’t believe I’m typing this: He lost some confidence. For a guy who seemed so untouchable by the normal doubts that haunt all of us, we saw a different person before play was halted by the pandemic. After missing the cut at Bay Hill, he took a quick trip to Las Vegas to meet with Butch Harmon. He was searching. So un-Brooks-like.
Lavner: Not just searching – there was a level of panic! He called an emergency team meeting on the eve of the fifth biggest tournament of the year. He’s downplayed the effect of his knee injury, but clearly that bled into some poor swing habits, and then it’s a downward spiral from there. Even though he didn’t pound balls during this three-month layoff, the time away should have given him the necessary space to clear his head.
Hoggard: It’s a familiar path, and you could see it start at the end of last year. I’m not sure panic is right, but there was concern. I still was waiting to see how things played out at the Masters before the schedule was frozen. As he made perfectly clear, it’s the majors that count, and I would have been curious to see if he could have turned things around.
Lavner: Let’s end with this then: Assuming the schedule goes ahead as planned, with three majors in the late summer and fall, does Brooks nab one of them?
Hoggard: Yes. Even with his struggles, it’s hard to come up with a scenario that sees him being shut out this year. Besides, if anyone needed a break it was Brooks, and I expect to see the same machine-like competitor when play resumes. I’m thinking PGA at Harding Park. You?
Lavner: He’s the favorite at the U.S. Open until further notice, especially if he gets his driver under control. Winged Foot is one of the most brutal U.S. Open venues, and there’s no one better when par is your friend.