Koepka follows DJ's lead in 'chill' U.S. Open victory
ERIN, Wis. – Brooks Koepka answered his phone Saturday night. On the other end was last year’s U.S. Open winner, Dustin Johnson, who had missed the cut at Erin Hills a day earlier. The two are close friends, and Johnson wanted to wish Koepka the best of luck – and offer a bit of advice on how to successfully chase down a first major victory. Johnson talked about staying patient and staying with the game plan. Told Koepka not to get ahead of himself, to hang in there whenever dicey situations developed, take it one shot at a time. There might have been other bits of conversation between the two. “Probably not that much that’s interesting,” Koepka admitted later. Then they hung up. It had been two minutes. “That’s a long phone call for us,” Koepka said, a sly nod to the aversion both players have for rambling conversations. Or more likely, any conversations. But the length – or lack thereof – didn’t make it any less important. Depending on how much you’re willing to read between the lines, perhaps it was Johnson’s subtle way of tabbing Koepka as his successor, of offering his seal of approval. “I think it’s pretty special for two guys to become very, very close off the golf course as they are on the golf course,” said Claude Harmon III, Koepka’s swing coach. “… That was a big thing, to get a call from DJ.” On Sunday, Koepka completed the line of succession, shooting a 5-under 67 to win by four strokes over Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama. Besides making sure his name would be next to Johnson’s name on the U.S. Open trophy, he did his friend one better. By shooting 16 under for the week, Koepka tied the 72-hole record set six years by Rory McIlroy at Congressional. With Johnson not around this weekend, Koepka seemed to channel his inner DJ. He overpowered the rest of the field with a combination of brute force and brutally effective accuracy. On a course of more than 7,800 yards, Johnson – the TOUR’s driving distance leader – entered this week as a favorite. Ultimately, it was a Johnson-type performance that prevailed. “The way he was driving the golf ball was as good as I’ve seen him drive it,” Harmon said. “He came into this week driving it pretty much identical to the way DJ was driving it last year when he came into Oakmont. He was hitting it that good.” It should be no surprise that Koepka and Johnson have similar games. Johnson has been dispensing advice to Koepka long before Saturday night, emphasizing the importance of fitness as a primary factor for optimal performance. Koepka has spent this season with a more regimented workout schedule, and a dedication to doing what was necessary to reach the next level. Dustin’s level. “He’s been listening to Dustin,” said Ricky Elliott, Koepka’s caddie. “Brooks has always been a good listener, always been a hard worker.” But Koepka’s patience has been tested. He expected an immediate payoff to his hard work. He wanted to see results, but in his first 13 starts in 2007, he had just two top-10 finishes. At age 27, he saw younger guys winning titles and players winning their first majors, and he wanted that too. In pressing to win, though, he kept falling short. “I’ve been trying to win so badly,” Koepka said. “I felt like I’ve underachieved.” Meanwhile, Johnson had become the game’s best player. He followed his Oakmont win a year ago with two more wins last season. Then he won three consecutive starts this season, rising to the top of both the FedExCup and the Official World Golf Ranking. Koepka wanted what his friend had. His motivation was not just to improve, but to improve enough so he could challenge Johnson. They played many practice rounds together, including last Tuesday at Erin Hills. It allowed Koepka to test his game against the best. “Whenever you’re really good friends with somebody, that’s what happens, isn’t it?” said Elliott. If you can do it, I can do it. … Obviously, Dustin’s an unbelievable player. If anybody tries to think they’re as good as Dustin, well, Brooks has that sort of game.” They also have the same sort of temperament. Call them the Chill Brothers. Neither one seems to play with a pulse. Neither elicits much emotion on the course. Neither seems particularly interested in performing deep dives on course strategy or swing analyzation. Two weeks ago, Koepka and his team arrived at Erin Hills for a quick look at the course before flying to Memphis, Tennessee, for the FedEx St. Jude Classic. They walked 18 holes, spoke with a local caddie, gained some significant local knowledge. So what happened when the team gathered back this week to game-plan? “Typical Brooks,” Harmon said. “Similar to DJ, he didn’t remember one hole.” If anybody tries to think they're as good as Dustin, well, Brooks has that sort of game. That’s just the way they are. Not interested in overthinking things. Ask them about their feelings? If you get more than a shrug, consider yourself fortunate. “He’s always been pretty flat-lined,” Harmon said of Koepka. “A lot of people compare he and DJ together. I think that’s why they get along so well. They’re kind of similar people. Not a lot fazes them and they’re pretty chilled out.” Perhaps nothing fazes Koepka because he’s seen so much. His path as a professional golfer has been well-documented, becoming of the few Americans to start out on the Challenge Tour in Europe, then on to the European Tour before coming back home as a PGA TOUR member. He’s won events in Scotland, Spain, Italy and Turkey. In 2013, he played tournaments in 15 different countries. Not only was he honing his golf skills and learning how to win, he was seeing much more of the world that most people in their early 20s. He ate horse meat in Kazakhstan. In Kenya, he stepped into a car for a 20-minute trip to his hotel – but the driver made it a terrifying 3-hour ride. “I was freaking out,” Koepka recalled. He enjoyed the beauty of Switzerland and Sweden, settled in to a regular routine in the United Kingdom. Sure, there were times he got homesick. Four years ago, he was leading after the third round of the Challenge Tour event in Scotland. He called his manager and said he didn’t even want to play, that he was tired and wanted to come home. But instead of flying home, he returned to the course the next day. And won. And then the day after that, he successfully qualified for the 2013 Open Championship. “I don’t even know what was going on,” Koepka said. “It was one of those things.” The more he experienced, the more he learned – and the more he improved. The friendship with Johnson certainly has proven fruitful. So did his partnership with Brandt Snedeker at last year’s Ryder Cup. Sneds is more prone to wearing his emotions on his sleeve, and as a result, it made Koepka more demonstrative. “The Ryder Cup was the first time I ever saw him punching the air,” Elliott said of Koepka. “That week playing with Sneds really brought him to a new level. I think because he realized how excited Sneds was, it felt like he need to be more vocal.” Here Koepka is now on the back nine Sunday at Erin Hills. The leaderboard is tight until his three consecutive birdies separate him from the field. Koepka said it was probably the most emotion he’d ever shown coming down the stretch of a tournament. Did you see it? Probably not. To the naked eye, he looked just like last year’s champion, the one who is both his friend and rival. Back-to-back chill.
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