Brooks Koepka and his caddie, Ricky Elliot, analyze a shot from the trees left of the 8th fairway during Sunday’s final round of the Masters.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — In the middle of his Sunday afternoon, Brooks Koepka was facedown on a training table and snoring like a bear. He was on the second floor of the caddie cabin. The third round of the Masters ended 60 minutes earlier, and the fourth round was 80 minutes away.
When the alarm rang at 1:20 p.m., he asked his physio what any normal human would after leading this grind fest of a Masters for three days straight: Five more minutes, please.
Koepka had been hanging out on the first floor of the caddie lounge, a perfect retreat on the far side of the practice range, when his eyelids started to droop. It was time for a power nap. You couldn’t blame him. Koepka’s day started about seven hours earlier and had already included 11 holes to polish off his third round. The entire golf world and much of the sports one had been talking about this man (and his caddie, for better or worse) for the past 60 hours. That’s exhausting in itself. The conclusion of all that chatter was nearly unanimous: Koepka is Back, with a capital B.
Where had he been, though? On some sort of odyssey.
Consider where Koepka was 24 months ago, when he read putts like some sort of break dancer, eager to compete but not aggravate the knee that was on an operating room table three weeks prior. He walked down the side of the Augusta’s 10th hole because walking down the center of the fairway was uncomfortable.
Consider 12 months ago, when he considered withdrawing from the 2022 Masters after his hip labrum tear flared up. When he missed the cut, he stormed off the property and plunged his fist into the rear windshield of his courtesy car. It didn’t break. Shortly after missing the cut at the Open at St. Andrews last summer, his favorite course in the world, Koepka called the second round of LIV Bedminster “rock bottom.” The knee stuff had inflamed the hip stuff, which impaired the swing stuff. It’s all connected. Claude Harmon was brought back in as swing coach. Koepka changed to a local trainer in Florida. They shut down his golf after LIV’s team championship in October.
That physio who ended his midday nap, Marc Wahl, has seen all of it. He talks about Koepka like he’s an F1 race car. “We’re really building this car all over again,” he said, talking about the fall shut down. “How much horsepower can you put it through? What can you do with it? When can you do it?”
Koepka, Wahl says, is both the car and the driver, and only recently has his team taken the governors off. Which brings us back to Sunday’s nap. A pit stop. He must have been comfortable. Koepka had summited the golf world once again, and reminded any doubting media that even though he woke up with a four-shot lead, nothing had changed since the second round. “I started yesterday at two [shots ahead]” he said. “I’m just spitting facts to you. I don’t know what else to say. I’m in the same spot … I’m fine with two.”
Only 18 holes stood in his way at a course he was torching. Koepka received 15 minutes of standard physio treatment — some Tiger Balm heat rub on that right knee — and all appeared business as usual. A few putts, then a range session. One caddie had resigned the afternoon’s most predictable fate: “Jon Rahm is the best golfer, but Koepka is the best champion. There’s a difference.” He looked normal. He said he felt normal. But at 2:40 p.m., his 3-wood off the 1st tee was anything but normal. A hook so bad it ended up OK, his ball far enough left it found the 9th fairway and offered an angle into the green. He sniped the putting surface and two-putted for a nervy opening par. But within an hour, Rahm had eliminated the two-shot difference. At 4:10 p.m., Koepka officially dropped into second. An hour after that, he was two back of Rahm and fighting to just remain in second. The field he lorded over for three days was getting the last laugh.
After starting the round at 11 under, Koepka stood in the fairway of the 13th hole four shots worse and three shots back. It mattered, of course, but it also didn’t matter. Rahm was in the fairway, too, nonchalantly leaning against his bag like this round was some casual money game. Seemingly unbothered. The group ahead was “brutally slow” Koepka said, joking that Rahm “went to the bathroom like seven times during the round and we were still waiting.”
The shadows from the pines pulled across the fairway as if they were curtains for Koepka’s time on stage. He hadn’t been in the news much in the past five months because LIV Golf hadn’t played many tournaments in the past five months. Just three events since the team championship in October, a point of annoyance for Koepka. At the Saudi International in early February, Koepka had already tallied the number of competitive rounds he would play before the Masters: just 17. That included a surprise trip to the International Series Oman hoping to “knock off some rust.” (He ended up shooting 74-78 to miss the cut and lose two of those rounds he planned on.)
Is this what we were watching play out on the most famous golf course in the world? Some sort of rust? Koepka was ultimately confused, too. “Didn’t feel like I did too much wrong,” he said Sunday night. “But that’s how golf goes sometimes.”
Rahm had played better golf to that point, felled by the bad luck of the rainier, colder, winder side of the draw. The scoreboard just hadn’t shown it. That is how golf goes sometimes. And still Koepka asserted himself enough late to have a chance. He was three back with two to play, teeing off first, trying to put pressure on Rahm. The miss he had on 1 was the same miss that cost him a birdie chance on 8 and was eventually the same miss that ended his hopes on 17: Left and basically dead. When asked about that tendency, he couldn’t wage a guess. “Um, I don’t know, man. If I knew I would have fixed it out there.” Fair enough. His coach, Claude Harmon, declined to comment. It was tough day for all in the Koepka camp. But Koepka himself seemed more understanding than ever. He embraced his family before signing for 75. He didn’t storm off to the parking lot. (He may not have been given the option.) Koepka sat for one of two runner-up press conferences (the other being Phil Mickelson’s), during which he was asked if it was possible to view the week as a step in the right direction, even if the race car seemed to run out of gas.
“Not today,” he started. “Probably not for the next few days. But eventually it will be a positive. I’d say probably give it a week, and I’ll start to see some positives out of it and carry this over to the PGA, the U.S. Open and The Open.”
During a week of hints — some obvious and others veiled — that may have been the most telling sign of Koepka being back: listing the only events he cares about. There are only three left this year. He figures to be involved.
Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine, currently working on a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews. You can read about those travels here and catch his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:
Apple | Spotify | Stitcher | iHeart | PodBean
GOLF.com and GOLF Magazine are published by EB GOLF MEDIA LLC, a division of 8AM GOLF