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Brooks Koepka, golf’s ‘big, bad, tough guy’ who surpassed Rory McIlroy

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“I’m back.” Those two words might send shivers around the golf world as Brooks Koepka savoured a fifth, legacy-defining major championship.

Those words are forever synonymous with another dominant, transcending athlete: Michael Jordan. Koepka is not quite in that realm, but he is an all-time great now. This cold-blooded killer on the golf course has surely eclipsed his rivals as the defining player of this generation. Just like Jordan, when others quiver as the finish line nears, Koepka simply elevates his game, relishing the moment and the pressure.

The American’s fierce stare each time he approaches his ball on a major Sunday, strolling with a swagger, muscles rippling. Rory McIlroy, the darling of the sport and heir to Tiger Woods for so long, continues to be tormented by his nine-year major drought. Meanwhile, the brutish force of Koepka was encapsulated throughout a closing round of 67 at the 2023 US PGA Championship to edge out Viktor Hovland and Scottie Scheffler by two at nine-under. After melting at Augusta this year, coughing up a two-stroke lead to the relentless Jon Rahm, Koepka refused to allow himself to unravel here. Three birdies in his first four holes sent a message to Hovland, who trailed by one shot at the start of play, that it would take flawless golf to surpass him. The pressure on Hovland rapidly increased, behind a player fifth in distance for the week, who also sent those missiles down from the tee with the sixth-best accuracy in terms of fairways hit.

After the Norwegian’s horrible luck on 16 saw his ball consumed by the lip of the bunker, Koepka relished his chance to rub salt into the wound. Clasping a wedge, there was no hesitation, Koepka sent a towering shot toward the pin before carefully rolling in his seventh birdie of the round. Three clear, two to play. Checkmate.

Now the first player to win a major championship while signed up to LIV Golf, Koepka’s legacy is starting to emerge.

“Yeah, I definitely think it helps LIV,” he admitted when quizzed on the significance of his victory. “But I’m more interested in my own self right now. It’s a huge thing for LIV, but at the same time, I’m out here competing as an individual at the PGA Championship. I’m just happy to take this home for the third time.”

His play is now so good that perhaps he will make it impossible for United States captain Zach Johnson to snub him, or any other of the rebels, for the prestigious Ryder Cup in Rome this September.

The face of golf might still be McIlroy, during Woods’ hiatus, but the defining player over the last 10-15 years? Many have enjoyed dominant runs, but none quite so ruthless as a healthy Koepka, none quite as inevitable when he smoothly slices through the competition to reach the summit and then sprints to victory like Mark Cavendish at the Tour.

Brroks Koepka held his nerve on Sunday to claim a third US PGA title

(Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Like the aforementioned Jordan, Koepka shares that intangible quality that made Woods so captivating too. Hand the 15-time major winner a lead heading into Sunday and, the freakish takedown from YE Yang in 2009 aside, it was over before it started. Now, Koepka has that intimidating edge again to stand, for the time being, above McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Rahm and Scheffler.

To illustrate Koepka’s greatness, he joins an exclusive club of seven players since 1950 who have won five or more men’s majors before 34 years of age alongside Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer. Not bad company to be in.

This major comes off the back of a vulnerable period in his career, visible thanks to the intimate nature of the Full Swing documentary on Netflix. Crushing injuries and the almost farcical beef between himself and Bryson DeChambeau, Koepka’s softer side has allowed for greater recognition and respect.

Rory McIlroy waits to putt on the 18th green at Oak Hill Country Club

(USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con)

“I know I seem like this big, bad, tough guy on the golf course that doesn’t smile, doesn’t do anything, but if you catch me off the golf course, I’ll let you know what’s going on,” he said. “Like, I’m happy they got that side; right? That’s truly me, and some people might hate it, some people might dog it, but at the end of the day, it’s just me.”

Now just 24 days until the US Open at LA Country Club, Koepka, with a newfound appreciation for his greatness, looks more intimidating than ever to his rivals.

“This is probably the sweetest one of them,” he concluded. “Because of all the hard work that went into this one, this one is definitely special.”

Tied with Ballesteros on five, Phil Mickelson on six is next. This is surely now the Koepka era, McIlroy and the chasing pack must now respond.

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