Validation: Brooks Koepka’s road back from a crisis of confidence to 2023 PGA Championship win

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – For Claude Harmon III, the biggest surprise was receiving a call from Brooks Koepka last July to help him with his swing again. After more than two years without speaking, Harmon watched him hit balls for 15 minutes at LIV Bedminster in New Jersey, but it was what Koepka said that left a lasting impression.

“I still feel like I can win majors, I still feel like I can be one of if not the best player in the world,” Koepka said. “You know, just gotta get my golf swing doing what I want it to do and just gotta get healthy again.”

Koepka completed a remarkable return to glory, shooting 3-under 67 on Sunday at Oak Hill to win the 105th PGA Championship by two strokes over Viktor Hovland and Scottie Scheffler. In doing so, Koepka became the 20th player to win at least five majors and joined Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to win the Wanamaker Trophy three times in the stroke-play era.

“This is probably the sweetest one of them all because all the hard work that went into this one, this one is definitely special,” Koepka said. “This one is probably it for me.”

The 33-year-old Koepka was considered washed up, done in by injuries that included a torn patella tendon in August 2019, a hip injury in 2020, and a potentially career-ending injury to his knee cap and patella tendon in March 2021. His short-game coach, Pete Cowen, said Koepka couldn’t compress down on his left side and the result was a two-way miss.

“It was almost game over,” Harmon III said.

No one knows,” Koepka said during his winner’s press conference. “There’s a lot of times where I just couldn’t even bend my knee.”

But he gave the world a window into the self-doubt this supposedly ruthless, emotionless alpha-male was suffering from when he opened up like never before during interviews for “Full Swing,” the Netflix golf docuseries. He admitted he had lost confidence and that it was a tough thing to regain.

“My whole career has gone straight up and then suddenly I’m kind of on, I don’t want to say the other side of it but it’s like, ‘OK, well, we’re going down now.’ This is the worst I’ve ever struggled my whole life. I have to figure out how to get out of this thing before it gets too late,” Keopka said in Full Swing.

Perhaps the best advice of all came from his mom, Denise Jakows, who told him, “Sometimes you just have to put your big boy pants on and get back out there, right?”

“That’s what all the great ones do, right?” Koepka said. “Back’s against the wall, they get it done.”

Koepka’s now-wife, Jena Sims, recalled how in the early years of their relationship, Koepka powered through any struggles but she said, “Now, like In the back of his head, he’s hearing these voices of like, ‘You can’t do this. You won’t do this.’ I do worry about the future.”

What Koepka needed most was to regain his fitness, and one of the positives of joining LIV Golf in June was it allowed him to play less and he had a four-month off-season to rest and rehabilitate. He showed signs that his game was resurfacing, winning twice on LIV Golf, most recently in April in Orlando and held the 54-hole lead at the Masters but admitted he “choked,” shooting 74 and tying for second as Jon Rahm slipped into the Green Jacket.

Harmon told him that this was simply the beginning of Brooks 2.0. “If this is the second phase of your career, it’s a helluva start,” Harmon said.

2023 Masters Tournament
2023 Masters Tournament

Brooks Koepka reacts as he walks off the No. 13 green during the final round of the 2023 Masters. (Photo: Katie Goodale-USA TODAY Network)

But Koepka took the defeat hard and said he didn’t sleep that night after the Masters. After much soul-searching he came to conclusion that the only thing that really matters when you get knocked down is what happens next.

“Thought about it for a few days after and really honed in on what I was doing and what went wrong,” Koepka said ahead of the PGA. “From there just never let it happen again. That’s the whole goal, right?”

Koepka held a one-stroke lead heading into the final round after shooting 72-66-66. He raced out of the gate, making three consecutive birdies starting at the second hole from inside 10 feet to build a four-stroke lead. He dropped shots at Nos. 6, where he drove in the water, and No. 7 and Hovland remained hot on his heels until late in the championship.

There would be no let up on the second nine. Koepka stuck his approach at No. 10 to 8 feet and rolled in the putt. After a bogey at 11, he knocked his second shot from the rough to 11 feet at the next hole and poured in the birdie putt. After Hovland rolled in a birdie putt at No. 13, Koepka sank a delicate 10-foot downhill putt for par to protect a one-stroke lead.

“When he is holing putts like he is at the moment, he is pretty dangerous,” Cameron Smith, the reigning British Open champion and a fellow LIV Golf member, said.

Koepka kept the gas down, nearly driving the 14th green to set up another birdie and Hovland was working hard just to keep pace. But Hovland finally blinked at 16, driving into a fairway bunker at 16 and embedding his second shot into the lip of the bunker en route to a double bogey. Koepka smelled blood and stuck his approach to 5 feet and made birdie to take a commanding four-stroke lead.

“It sucks right now, but it is really cool to see that things are going the right direction,” said Hovland, who made birdie at the last to tie for second. “If I just keep taking care of my business and just keep working on what I’ve been doing, I think we’re going to get one of these soon.”

A bogey and a par closed it out for Koepka and he signed for a 72-hole total of 9-under 271.

2023 PGA Championship
2023 PGA Championship

Brooks Koepka poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club. (Photo: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports)

Australians Cameron Smith and Cam Davis, Austria’s Sepp Straka and Kurt Kitayama tied with Scheffler for the low round of the tournament with 65s. Michael Block, the 46-year-old club pro from Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo, capped off his Cinderella story by making a hole-in-one at the 15th hole and shooting 1-over 71. He finished as the low club pro and his T-15 earned an exemption to the 2024 PGA Championship. Among the players he beat were reigning Masters champion Jon Rahm, who entered the tournament as world No. 1 but finished T-50.

“It’s golf,” Rahm said, “when you think, oh, I got this, it kicks you in the mouth, and you have to start over again. It happens to everybody.”

Scheffler’s strong finish vaulted him back to No. 1 in the world ahead of Rahm, but that was little consolation to him.

“Right now I’m a little sad that I wasn’t able to get the tournament done, but I’m proud of how I fought, I’m proud of how I played the back nine today to give myself a chance,” Scheffler said.

How did failure at the Masters lead to Koepka’s validating win at Oak Hill?

“I definitely wouldn’t have, I don’t think, won today if that didn’t happen, right?” he said, but as for what specifically he learned from the defeat, he’s not telling. “Definitely take it and keep using it going forward for each event, each major, any time I’m in contention, but I’m not going to share. I can’t give away all the secrets.”

Whatever promise to himself he kept in the final round, Koepka’s ball-striking clinic over the final 18 belied his frustrating warmup. Heading from the practice tee to the putting green on Sunday before his tee time, Koepka complained to Cowen, who said, “Your 70 percent of swinging (lousy) will still win.”

Cowen said he never doubted that Koepka would win another major because “he’s a man who’s comfortable in uncomfortable moments.” But does Koepka loves the game? Cowen said no, he loves winning and wants to be remembered as an all-time great. “He’ll win a lot more, he’ll want to win all four majors a couple of times,” Cowen said.

For Koepka, who won the U.S. Open twice and the PGA previously in 2018 and 2019, he’s in rare company with five majors and his crisis of confidence seems to be a distant memory. Koepka 2.0 may just be getting started.

“He likes climbing Mount Everest,” Harmon said. “He likes being in the death zone. Everybody says they like being up there. But you got to step over dead bodies to get to the top and then you got to step over dead bodies to get back down.”

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Story originally appeared on GolfWeek