Brooks Koepka, Seeking a 3rd Straight U.S. Open Title, Could Be the Star Golf Needs

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — If Brooks Koepka cared at all about fame or personal branding, he could have a logo shaped like a boulder sewn to the shoulder seams of his golf shirts. As it is, Koepka doesn’t even have an equipment sponsor.

Unpackaged, unemotional and unapologetically himself, Koepka is not a star manufactured by golf’s marketing machine. But he may be just what a sport searching for Tiger Woods’s heir needs.

Koepka is the world No. 1, a role for which he seems perfectly cast. He walks with a swagger, exudes a brooding, leading-man cool and is built like a bouncer, which perhaps explains his success in turning away his competition.

Koepka, 29, has won four of the last eight majors he has played in, including the past two United States Opens. With a victory this week at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Koepka will become just the second player, and the first since Willie Anderson in 1905, to pull off an Open three-peat.

In his opening round on Thursday, Koepka shot a two-under-par 69 that left him four strokes behind the leader, Justin Rose. When Koepka won at Shinnecock Hills last year, he opened with a five-over-par 75.

Pebble Beach’s spectacular seaside setting provided the stage for one of the sport’s most indelible performances: Woods’s 15-stroke victory in the 2000 U.S. Open. Trevor Scott, a spectator at Pebble, said that he watched Woods lap the field then and that he felt the same slack-jawed awe Tuesday when he braved wilting heat to watch Koepka play nine holes ahead of the tournament’s 119th edition.

“This guy,” Scott said, “is a straight-out athlete.”

The comparisons to Woods don’t end there.

“Tiger just went to a different place mentally than the rest of us can go to,” said Graeme McDowell, who won the U.S. Open in 2010, the last time it was held in Pebble Beach. “But Brooks can get himself there with the little chips, the little comments, and take himself to places we’ve only seen from guys like Tiger.”

Though Koepka doesn’t go out of his way to promote himself, fame has managed to find him. He had to change his phone number this week because fans had somehow gotten ahold of it and were bombarding him with text messages and voice mail messages.

Asked about their contents, Koepka blushed and said, “I don’t know if I can say.”

Koepka is not flashy, but his galleries are growing ever more colorful. Standing next to Scott in a line for autographs on Tuesday was Patrick Shaw, who cried out to Koepka that he had completed 50 push-ups in the morning “so I’d look buff like you.”

Shaw got Koepka’s attention, but with his clothes, not his comment. He wore red, white and blue pants with a Declaration of Independence pattern and a red T-shirt with “Brooks’ Twin Bro” written across the front.

At least Shaw spelled Koepka’s first name correctly. In the official United States Golf Association transcript of Koepka’s Tuesday news conference, his name appeared as “Brook” throughout.

“Really?” Koepka said when told about the missing letter. He fell silent, processing the error like a private eye assessing evidence at a crime scene. To Koepka, it was further proof, along with a U.S. Open television promo that failed to include him as one of the young players poised to take the torch from Woods, that he is golf’s Invisible Man.

The U.S.G.A.’s mistake and Fox Sports’ omission could be the field’s misery, because a slighted Koepka is an inspired Koepka.

Two years ago at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, Koepka won the U.S. Open by four shots after stewing over the attention paid to two of golf’s fair-haired boys, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. A year ago at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, Koepka bristled at being omitted from Golf Channel’s list of notable players — and won the Open by a stroke.

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Koepka hugging his caddie, Ricky Elliott, after winning the P.G.A. Championship at Bethpage Black last month.CreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

At the P.G.A. Championship in Missouri two months later, Koepka eked out a two-stroke victory after he and Dustin Johnson, his friend and rival, visited a health club where a few of the other patrons gushed to Koepka about being in the presence of … Johnson. Miffed that the Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee had questioned his toughness, Koepka successfully defended his P.G.A. title last month.

“You’ve always got to find something to give you a little bit of extra motivation,” Koepka said.

During Woods’s decade-long major title drought, golf’s image makers threw several players into the spotlight to see if they’d stick. Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Fowler have had incandescent moments, but all have wilted in the manufactured glare. Asked for advice he would give Koepka, McIlroy, a four-time major winner, cautioned against overexposure.

“You know, saying ‘no’ to things,” McIlroy said. “Just making sure that golf and your performance is still the No. 1 priority.”

Koepka prioritizes the four majors, though he hardly disappears in between. He has two regular PGA Tour victories and a handful of second-place finishes. What he has achieved the past two years, Spieth said, “isn’t just a run. This is who he is. And he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with for decades. So get used to it.”

Koepka circles golf courses as bloodlessly as a shark, but late in his wire-to-wire victory at this year’s P.G.A. Championship, he revealed a very human side. Ahead by seven strokes after 54 holes, Koepka made four consecutive bogeys on the back nine Sunday and let his advantage shrink to a single stroke. In holding on for a two-shot victory over Johnson, Koepka showed his mental mettle.

“I hit great shots down the stretch when I needed to,” Koepka said.

That’s as close as he’ll come to boasting. He even squirms when his friends brag on him.

Justin Thomas, who was forced to sit out the P.G.A. Championship because of a wrist injury, said he learned a lot watching Koepka down the stretch in the final round.

“I just felt like he handled that really well,” Thomas said, adding that if he found himself in a similar scenario he would try “to channel my inner B.K.”

When Koepka heard what Thomas said, he shifted in his seat and let go an embarrassed laugh. “I have no idea what channeling my inner B.K. means,” he said.

Koepka doesn’t seem to grasp that he’s a big deal. When he walks into a restaurant and people start to point and whisper, he glances around to see what celebrity is in their midst.

“I’m like ‘What’s everybody staring at?’” Koepka said.

Koepka’s game face is a thousand-yard stare, but he doesn’t get why that makes him seem boring. Doesn’t everyone act seriously in the workplace?

Away from the course, Koepka is not afraid to show his playful side. During a vacation in the Maldives in January, he stripped down to a purple men’s thong, stood next to his girlfriend, the actress and model Jena Sims, who was also wearing a thong, and allowed himself to be photographed from behind.

The picture, which Sims posted to her Instagram account, was captioned, “Who wore it better?”

Even when nearly naked, Koepka couldn’t hide his competitiveness. He stood on his tippy toes to tighten his muscles and streamline his pose.

“It’s all for fun,” he said.

Johnson didn’t quite see the humor. He said he would do just about anything with or for Koepka. But the thong was too much.

“I’m not dressing up,” Johnson said. “Especially the little banana hammock he had on.”

Will Koepka be wearing the biggest smile at the U.S. Open’s conclusion on Sunday? Those who overlook him do so at their peril.

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