Brooks Koepka: Not a gunslinger so much anymore

You’ve seen the Dustin Johnson commercial where he’s hitting a TaylorMade driver off a tee on a closed hole complete with a launch monitor, right? And he really clocks one and he starts laughing and says not to ask him to swing any faster than that because that was as fast as he could go. And as the monitor operator calls out the speed stats and yardage, Johnson begins to laugh in amazement.

Well, to us sitting on the sidelines, while it looked like his normal aggressive swing, it didn’t look like he was particularly swinging anywhere near the red line of his capabilities. I have a friend who’s a little over six feet tall and has a very nice swing. But because he has a chronically bad back, he swings very languidly, kind of like Ernie Els. Or at least that’s what I thought until he told me that he frequently gets compliments on the Els-like effortlessness in his swing, but what they don’t realize is that he’s swinging as fast as he can. I was amazed.

And so too, we have one of the up-and-coming stars on the PGA Tour, Brooks Koepka, saying that he’s been playing too aggressively and that he came into the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis determined to tone it down. He always looked like he was swinging with certitude, but certainly nowhere near the edge.  

And because he was playing more within the guardrails on Thursday, he shot a 6-under 64 to tie for the lead with Greg Owen and Ryan Palmer. He had eight birdies and two bogeys.

Yeah, played very well today.  Been struggling of late and changed strategy, try to play a little less aggressive, and it worked out today.

He came to this decision because he felt like he was playing well but had too many “big mistake” holes:

I’ve been having a lot of high numbers, lot of double bogeys.  You can’t really attack.  On this golf course you put yourself in the wrong position, you’re going to be in trouble scrambling to make bogeys.  Put myself in good positions all day.

I have been following Koepka ever since his legendary travels in Europe and Asia as he tried to win his PGA Tour card by increasing his World Ranking over there: the three hour cab ride that should have taken twenty minutes and eating horse meat in Kazakhstan, I think it was.

So when he came to Phoenix this year for the first time in his young career, I made a point of following him for a round or so. He played very much like the young gun, but it was more with that air of certitude Tour players exude than anything about speed. And he won for the first time in his PGA Tour career. But his subsequent drift was troubling to him:

Like I said, I’ve been struggling.  This is big.  To fire a low round, it’s important, and I kind of last minute last week, felt like I needed to play, to come and play well, especially with the U.S. Open next week.  It’s good for the confidence.

And he acknowledged that it wasn’t just about increasing his confidence, it’s about tailoring his game to the demands of the Open:

You got to understand the U.S. Open, par is pretty good.  You kind of aim at the middle of the greens, you’re going to have no more than a 25, 30-foot putt and sometimes par, even bogey is okay.  Try not to get double bogeys or triple bogeys.

So once you know that you can win, like really, not just a declarative belief in yourself, you want to do it again. You’ve broke the logjam and now you just want run the rapids. But, as he discovered, that pressing isn’t always a good thing:

Expectations changed.  I put a little bit more pressure on myself, trying to win and make things happen.  You can’t do that out here.  Just played to the middle of the greens.  Some pins you can go at, some you can’t.  I wasn’t understanding that well and just had to kind of sit back and reevaluate the rounds.  To play a little less aggressive is sometimes more beneficial.

And his changed strategy has paid off so far:

It feels good to play a little better.  I’ve been struggling with my own expectations lately.  And to kind of pull the reins back and play a little safer, play a little less aggressive, it’s nice to see it kind of pay off.

You’ve got to be able to put the ball in the right spots.  To me it’s been expectations.  My expectations been a little too high.  When you’re able to kind of put it in the center of the greens, give yourself uphill putts, that makes this golf course a lot easier, and being in the fairway helps a lot.

Because what he’s learned is that PGA Tour course setups ain’t beanbag:

I felt like I was playing really well.  Wasn’t scoring well.  Too many double bogeys and being a little too aggressive is the only reason it happened.  You can put yourself in bad situations out here pretty quick.  With the way the PGA Tour sets up the pins and things like that, if you’re on the wrong side, you’re really in trouble.

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