Will Brooks Koepka finally get the recognition he deserves after USPGA triumph?




 

Draped from head to toe in Nike apparel and owner of biceps that would shame the preening regulars of Venice Beach, back-to-back US Open and USPGA champion Brooks Koepka looks every inch the American sporting superstar. Right down to the gleaming orthodonture.

Except Koepka is a curious absence on the sofas of the nation's late night talk show circuit. The Empire State building was not illuminated to honour his triumph on the other side of the East River at Bethpage Black (as it was for Tiger Woods in April). The Time magazine cover shoot has not been forthcoming. Perhaps these invitations were lost in the post, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that Koepka - the only male golfer under 30 with four major championships - is a blank page in the public mind. Is he unknowable, unlikeable or a combination of the two?

Let us start with the most fundamental of publicity handicaps: that name. Brooks Koepka. Were he the eponymous character of a proposed bestseller, agents and publishers would return to sender with 'TOO MANY Ks' scrawled across the score in red ink. Star names are not that much of a mouthful.

There is no headline-yielding nickname like Golden Bear or Great White Shark either, let alone something as resonant as Tiger Woods; the perfect name for a predatory winner with a tendency to drive it in the trees. At least Dustin Johnson sounds like a saloon bar brawler, while even 'Rory' has a degree of kinetic energy to it. But Brooks Koepka? He just sounds like another identikit ATM machine of a golfer from the country clubs of middle America, churning out top-20 finishes after his sole victory at the Combine Harvester Invitational in Nowheresville, Indiana.

That impression could not be more different from the reality of Koepka's career, of course. Defying his compatriots' reputation for insularity, he cut his teeth on the European Tour and its subsidiary the Challenge Tour. This has instilled him with a worldliness that many of his competitors lack.

"The camaraderie over here is a bit different. I like it more, personally, than I do in the States," reflected Koepka when he returned to a European Tour event at this year's Abu Dhabi Championship. "It seems there's 30 or 40 guys on a flight, basically the whole flight is everybody, you know, players, caddies, things like that. Everyone's always laughing, joking. The attitude over here is a little different. The sense of humour over here is a little better."

His fledgling days overseas may also have helped Koepka develop greater adaptability as a golfer, playing more courses where accuracy is at a premium and not just the parkland slug-fests of the US (although he is quite good on those). It may also explain why Koepka slipped off the radar in his own country, with golf pundits devoting far more attention to Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas at a younger age.

Koepka's trajectory as an elite player has also been highly unusual. He has won two US Opens and two USPGAs, but has only one other 72-hole strokeplay victory on American soil. Koepka's career cannot be traced along the narrative arcs with which sports writers are familiar. He was not quite the preternatural teenage sensation like Woods or Spieth; his first PGA Tour win came at 25, and first major at 27. Unlike Phil Mickelson, there was no succession of cruel near misses and major heartache before he finally cracked golf's biggest events. The public appreciate the 'if at first you don't succeed' story exemplified by Mickelson prior to the 2004 Masters. Koepka's effortless aptitude for the majors defies conventional logic, like breezing through an exam without any revision.

His style of play is also not especially artful or romantic, and can turn off purists. Although he possesses great touch on and around the greens, there is no doubt that Koepka's powerful (and straight) driving is the advantage he leverages at majors. Like his rival Johnson, the technique is far from classical but in keeping with modern methods devised to maximise technology like trampoline club-faces and balls that fly forever.

His club face is very shut at the top of his backswing, in a way that would have once had coaches reaching for the instruction manual. Fast body rotation and plenty of shaft lean manages to square the face up and produce such a penetrating ball flight. His strength allows him to gouge the ball from the rough when he does stray into trouble. The shot-making of Woods and Seve Ballesteros painted more sublime pictures, but as every golfer knows there are no pictures on a scorecard.

Perhaps Koepka has been short-changed by the winning the USPGA twice, which is considered the lesser sibling among golf's four majors - not quite as penal as the US Open, not as enchanting as the Masters nor the quirky test of links golf at the Open Championship. Bethpage Black is a US Open venue though, and certainly played like one in a blustery final day on Sunday, so the notion Koepka's majors are cheapened is silly.

Koepka will be the clear favourite at next month's US Open, although the tiny greens and fiddly layout of Pebble Beach does not seem the ideal venue for a three-peat. A first Open Championship could be read from the tea leaves. Koepka's caddie Ricky Elliott is from Portrush, Northern Ireland, where golf's oldest major is returning for the first time since 1951 in July.

Koepka will not lack for motivation having spoken about the importance of having 'chips' on his shoulder to perform to his optimum. Prior to the USPGA, forthright golf pundit Brandel Chamblee said he was yet to be convinced that Koepka was as tough a competitor as claimed.

"Telling me I wasn't tough. That p----d me off. That really p----d me off," said Koepka, with the Wanamaker Trophy sat in front of him on Sunday evening. They will never make that mistake again.

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