Three months on from the slip and fall that led to his withdrawal at last October’s CJ Cup in South Korea, Brooks Koepka’s left knee issue has improved enough to where he will play in this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on the European Tour. And the world No.1 sounds ready to go. Having been hitting balls since just before Christmas, Koepka was making positive noises at the end of a forced exile that he clearly didn’t enjoy.
“I miss competition,” said Koepka, who due to the injury had to skip playing for the United States in last month’s Presidents Cup in Melbourne. “I’ve missed showing up to an event and preparing for something. I haven’t had anything to prepare for. When you have three months off, it’s not fun. But it makes me appreciate the game more. So I’m excited. I’m just excited to hit balls. I have enthusiasm to get out there and go play. Last year, there wasn’t much practise. I just couldn’t do it with my knee. I couldn’t get on my left side. I couldn’t squat down in a bunker. I struggled to get down and read a putt. Thankfully that’s in the past now.”
Specifically, Koepka said that, “In Korea, I re-tore [the knee], and the kneecap had moved into the fat pad. That’s excruciating. It’s a lot of pain. It’s not fun.”
He must now work to get back into the game shape he will need in order to maintain his 1.2314-point lead over No.2 Rory McIlroy in the Official World Golf Ranking as 2020 begins. In a light-hearted Monday afternoon nine-hole match with 15-year old Josh Hill – who last year made a little bit of history by winning on the Middle East-based MENA Tour – the 29-year-old American lost, 1 down.
Koepka also conceded that the left knee doesn’t “feel like his right knee” just yet, but that he’s ready to get back after it. “I don’t think anybody’s ever operating at 100 percent,” said Koepka, who had stem-cell treatment on the knee after the Tour Championship in August, then missed the cut at the Shriners in Las Vegas in October before his WD at the CJ Cup. “Just get on with it and go play. I mean, I won with it, so I don’t see any issue with it.”
Rusty or not, it would appear Koepka is not too far away from the form that has seen him win four of the past 11 Major championships. Esteemed swing coach Pete Cowen walked with Koepka in his exhibition with Hill, and came away impressed by the progress the former has made in just a few short weeks.
“Brooks looked good,” Cowen said. “He hit the ball well. And his short game looked sharp. He was able to put pressure on his left knee, which is what he couldn’t do for a lot of last year. He was in good humour, too, giving me some grief for teaching Gary Woodland the chip shot he hit on the 17th green at Pebble Beach last year en route to winning the US Open. Brooks reckoned he would have won three [US Opens] in a row if not for me.
“More seriously, I know that Brooks wants, over the next five or six years, to be the dominant player in the game. That won’t be easy with Rory out there, but rivalries in the game are great. I’m looking forward to watching them go at it.”
So is Koepka. McIlroy’s recent comment that he thinks he is the best player on his best day left the only man above the Northern Irishman in the rankings unfazed.
“Rory should believe that,” Koepka said. “Everybody playing should think that. If you don’t think you’re the best player, what’s the point? Everybody comes here trying to win. That’s the goal. If you don’t believe you’re the best deep down, then there’s something wrong with you. You might as well quit.”
Aside from that inner belief, nothing has changed as far as Koepka’s long-term ambitions are concerned. The winning of Major titles is where it’s at for him.
“I think we know the four tournaments I’m looking forward to,” he said with a smile. “That’s pretty obvious. They are what everybody gears their year around. I’m trying to get in the swing of things to start it off, obviously. But the Majors are what everybody is remembered by. We can all sit here and know how many Majors Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson won. But I don’t know how many tournaments they won. You’re remembered by your Majors. That’s where my focus is, trying to play well there.”
Speaking of which, Koepka’s visit to Royal St George’s this July will not be his first to the southern-most venue on the Open Championship rota. As a 13-year-old on his maiden trip to the United Kingdom, Koepka watched alongside his mother and brother, Chase, as Ben Curtis won the claret jug in 2003.
“I remember my brother shouted at Tiger and he shouted back, something like, ‘Thanks, bud,’ or whatever it was,” Koepka said. “We thought it was the coolest thing ever. But it’s been a while since then. I don’t remember much of it. I just remember Ben won coming down the stretch.”
More immediately, Koepka expressed some pleasure at the news the European Tour is taking a stricter view of slow play. This week and going forward, any player given two bad times over the four rounds will be penalised one stroke. There was also what might be interpreted as a veiled reference to Patrick Reed and the controversy around the former Masters champion after he was given a two-stroke penalty for improving his line of play during last month’s Hero World Challenge.
“I think it’s a good thing,” said Koepka of the new pace of play rule, before he veered into a more general comment. “The game is changing, and the rules need to change with it. That’s why you’ve seen so many different rule changes, equipment changes, things like that going on. It’s got to evolve as we evolve – courses, technology, everything like that.
“Overall, they are trying to make the game a lot simpler. These changes make the game easier to understand for the fans at home. And the players. It’s clear cut what’s going to happen and clear-cut what you need to do. When everybody knows the rules, it’s a lot easier.”
Indeed. And a (almost) fully rehabbed knee doesn’t hurt either.