In 2019, the week Brooks Koepka would lead wire-to-wire at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black and capture a fourth major title in 23 months, he broke down why he believes he’d become the most dominant player on golf’s biggest stages.
“(There are) 156 in the field,” he said, “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, the Palm Beach County native and Jupiter resident, recently has become one of those guys others believe, ‘I’m just going to beat.’ A non-factor in this year’s majors and rarely in contention in the last year, Koepka, whether because of injuries, the distraction of planning a wedding or maybe just being past his peak, is leaving the PGA Tour to join Greg Norman’s LIV Golf Series.
Koepka, at 32, is a big get for the Saudi-backed series searching for credibility and attention, one whose events are shown on YouTube because it does not have a television deal. LIV’s first event two weeks ago in London featured just two golfers who move the needle, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. Add Bryson DeChambeau and Koepka for next week’s event at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside of Portland, Oregon, and now it has four.
But none of that matters to the 20 or so players who have defected from the PGA Tour and others who are struggling to find their footing in the world of professional golf.
All that matters are the checks hitting their accounts. Everyone from Palm Beach Gardens’ Charl Schwartzel, who won $4.75 million for winning the individual title and being a part of the winning team in London; to Andy Ogletree, who took home $120,000 in prize money for shooting 24-over and finishing last in the 48-man-field, is in LIV for one reason.
In two decades as a pro, Schwartzel never won $3 million in a year, including 2011 when he won the Masters. Ogeltree’s career earnings in four years of playing tour events is $38,186.
Koepka’s decision certainly has to do with adding to that $38 million he’s earned in prize money, plus millions more off the course, in his career. It also gives us a peek into the mind of a golfer that at one time was considered among golf’s royalty, held the No. 1 ranking in the world for 47 weeks and was as feared as anyone not named Tiger Woods in recent history when it comes to the majors.
Now, Koepka has done something completely opposite of what he had become known for on golf’s biggest stages – a steely, laser-like focused, ultra-competitive champion.
He has run from the competition.
Injuries certainly have played a factor in his struggles, but he’s been dealing with those – whether it be his wrist, knee, hip – for several years now. Perhaps Koepka just cannot handle his body not allowing him to be a consistent threat on the PGA Tour.
Or perhaps he’s seen a group of talented players in their twenties – all about five years younger than Koepka – making their mark in the sport. Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland, Sam Burns, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Will Zalatoris all have zoomed past Koepka in the world rankings.
What happened to the Brooks Koepka who said just four months ago it was “embarrassing” to be ranked No. 20 in the world? Currently he is No. 19.
The old Brooks Koepka would have taken on that challenge, pulled out the disrespect card he used so well during his run of four major championships in eight starts, and re-established his status among the best in the world.
Now, Koepka is taking the easy money — he likely is receiving in the neighborhood of $100 million to join the series — to play eight LIV events (the series is hoping to expand next year) and whatever other tournaments will welcome LIV golfers.
All of this, of course, is his right, but he is the one who has to accept the backlash for joining a league backed by Saudi money. And knowing Koepka as many of us do, he certainly does not care about the blowback.
But Koepka no longer will be playing against the best in the world, with the possible exception of a few majors each year, and even that may be taken away. That, too, he has to accept.
This much is certain, Koepka would not have taken this path two or three years ago when there was a mystique to his game.
And no one outside of Mickelson has handled this decision worse than Koepka. He will forever be remembered for calling out Mickelson for his “greed” comment, saying LIV would get their guys because “somebody will sell out and go to it,” and insisting money doesn’t matter and “I just want to play against the best.”
On Wednesday, Rory McIlroy, who has been as vocal as anyone in his loyalty to the PGA Tour, said he was surprised with Koepka’s decision, call it “duplicitous” because of “what he said previously.”
But now he is unable to play PGA Tour events, including his hometown Honda Classic, which, to Koepka’s credit, was on his schedule every year. The best golfer ever born and bred in Palm Beach County is leaving the best, most competitive league in his sport. Sure, his four majors were historic, something he will be — and should be — proud of the rest of his life.
Those trophies still shine sitting on Koepka’s bookshelves. It’s his reputation that has been tarnished.