Given the questionable health of his left knee – and the indisputable struggle to find consistency in his game – it is not fair to say that Brooks Koepka does not enjoy the kind of momentum or tip shape that is heading towards the 102nd PGA Championship of the next week that exposed leading to other major defenses of the title.
(Aside: God helps the field if Koepka reads that sentence and starts with another one of his chip-on-the-shoulder performances, I’ll show you.)
It’s not that Koepka has little chance of winning a third consecutive PGA when he finds him at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. He will be among the favorites, because, well, if there is a beast mode in any golfer in the world, he resides in the Floridian with the body of the linebacker and the steel chin. It will certainly bring the same determination and concentration that allowed him to win consecutive US Open titles in 2017-’18 – and to approach the third consecutive summer last summer in Pebble Beach – as well as the PGA titles in Bellerive and Bethpage Black the last two years. His major shooting intensity was extraordinary.
Last year Justin Thomas talked about “channeling my inner BK”. Other players know that Koepka finds a way to face the challenge of a great championship.
It’s just that this year it looks like it will have a steeper climb.
Koepka, 30, has lost his fourth cut of the season and the second in his last three starts at last week’s 3M Open in Minnesota. Thrown in his retirement from the CJ Cup in South Korea due to the aggravation of the knee injury he suffered in early 2019 and that is five weekends out in 10 events with only one of the top 10 to his credit, seventh place at RBC Heritage. In the previous three seasons combined he lost only seven cuts.
Although a recent MRI scan has shown that his knee has not structurally improved since Korea, Koepka has continued to insist, insisting that any improvement must come from the repetitions of the tournament. “Every round I can play in,” he said at 3M Open, “I’m just trying to find that something where … I mean, it’s a throw away, everyone knows golf‘s that game where you do a good swing and everything starts and it is as always, returning to normal. So, I’m just trying to find it and keep fighting it. “
Koepka seems to sense how crucial it is for him to put together some solid rounds. And he would be right. Within a handful of starts before each of his biggest wins, he scored at least one finish in the top five, and finished in his last two PGAs in the top five in the immediately preceding start.
Beyond its current form, however, another factor is working against Koepka: the story, which has a lot to say about the victory of three majors in a row. Simply put, it’s rare. And that karma will be difficult to overcome.
In fact, math is not in Koepka’s favor. All in all, 29 golfers on 34 occasions have won one of four men’s majors in consecutive years. Only six times, however, a golfer scored three times, and three of those occurred before 1880 at the Open Championship, when the event was in its infancy and had courses consisting of only a handful of players.
Narrow your search to the last 100 years and 19 players on 24 occasions have attempted a three peat in a major one, with only Walter Hagen [PGA, 1924-’27] and Peter Thomson [British Open, 1954-’56] pulling it out.
Mind you, a who’s who of the greats of the game has tried. Four times Tiger Woods has captured majors back to back. His best finish on the three occasions he went for three in a row in consecutive years was the T-12 in the 2007 Open Championship. (He failed to defend his PGA titles back-to-back in 2008 due to a End-of-season knee surgery, but in 2009 he was second to YE Yang at Hazeltine National.) Woods, however, had no trouble putting together titles at regular tour events. Four times he has won an event for three consecutive years. Twice, in the Bay Hill Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando and in the Farmers Insurance Open of the San Diego Torrey Pines, he has won four in a row, a record he shares with young Tom Morris, Hagen and Gene Sarazen.
For all the possibilities he has given, the 18-time big winner Jack Nicklaus has successfully defended only one important title once, which reached the Masters in 1966. And then he lost the cut to August National in ’67. Interestingly, his only streak in three events came to Orlando’s Walt Disney World Golf Classic from 1971 to 1973.
“It’s incredibly difficult to win two in a row, let alone that third,” said Curtis Strange, who won the 1988 and ’89 US Open and then finished the T-21 in 1990. “You must be lucky, and I don’t mean that winning is never just luck. But you have to play well when you get in, you have to be healthy. And then who else is playing well and fighting. Can they handle the pressure? Will you get that rebound that counts? The other makes it bounce or not? And if it is something different from the Masters, there is the problem of a different course every year and how it prepares for you. “
It is a lot to chew. And even at the Masters, played every year at the Augusta National, nobody has ever taken three green jackets in a row.
That old schoolhouse Rock ditty got it right: “Three is a magic number. Somewhere in that ancient mystical trinity … “
The last man to win the same three main wins was Thomson in the Open Championship from 1954 to ’56. The third came when the Australian defeated Belgium’s Flory Van Donck by three shots at Royal Liverpool. Meanwhile, had it not been for Bobby Locke in 1957, Thomson, who finished second for three shots that year, would have made five in a row, having also won in 1958 in a playoff victory at the Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Looking exclusively at the PGA championship, seven golfers have won the Wanamaker Trophy twice in a row [Woods having done it twice], but only Hagen has a longer winning streak. The charismatic and ruthless Haig was indomitable over a four-year period from 1924 to ’27, when the championship was contested during match play.
Despite his knee problems, Koepka is in 17th place in hits earned / off the tee, but in the key statistics of approach to green, around green and putting, he is losing hits. This, of course, explains a running average of 71.040, which ranks 101 on the PGA Tour. In the previous four seasons, the Florida native had sported an average below 70 and ranked fourth, ninth respectively , 14th and ninth place.
Koepka goes back to this week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, and perhaps the fact that he is defending the champion in Memphis will trigger the rebirth he seeks. Or perhaps he will find a reason to reattach a chip to his broad shoulder, an elective move that has worked so well for him in the past. As he said at last year’s US Open in his attempt to tie Willie Anderson up, “You always have to find something that gives you a little more motivation.”
In fact, when Memphis was asked on Wednesday if his recent struggles could reduce his level of confidence, Koepka had a response very similar to that of Koepka.
“I’m defending, aren’t I?”
When the answer was yes, Brooks answered quickly. “OK. Just checking.”
In other words, nobody dares to fire Koepka in a major label. The point here is that if it is about to enter beast mode, time is of the essence. And the story teases while calling.