Defending U.S. Open champion Brooks Kopeka isn’t the main attraction this weekend at Shinnecock Hills (see Woods, Tiger). He may not be the main attraction in his grouping when he tees off Thursday alongside Jason Day and Bubba Watson.
But Kopeka isn’t in Southampton, New York, to play second, third or any other fiddle.
“The only reason I’m here is to win. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have signed up,” Koepka said during his Tuesday press conference. “I feel like I always play well at the U.S. Open. Major championships are where I shine.”
The 28-year-old is right. Starting with the 2015 Open Championship, Koepka has finished 13th or better in eight of the nine major tournaments in which he’s competed, including his first major win at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Since hoisting that trophy a year ago by tying the tournament record at 16 under, Koepka has endured some frustrating times. A partially torn tendon in his left wrist brought his streak of eight consecutive top-20 finishes to a screeching halt as he missed four months (including the Masters) to start the 2018 season.
“You go from playing some of the best golf I’ve ever played to probably being at the lowest point professionally that I’ve been,” Koepka said before describing the toll inactivity took on his body. “The lowest point was the fact I gained about 15 pounds. Looking in the mirror wasn’t quite fun.”
Koepka ultimately recovered quicker than anticipated and he claims to be “100 percent” past the injury. There’s no basis for argument as his play suggests he’s back to top shape ahead of his U.S. Open defense. A T-11 finish at the Players Championship last month was followed by a second-place finish and three rounds of 67 or better at the Forth Worth Invitational.
Koepka, currently No. 9 in the World Golf Ranking, fielded common questions about Shinnecock Thursday and likened the course to Erin Hills. However, his success this weekend may not hinge on the width off the fairways or firmness of the greens, but on the lesson he learned en route to winning this tournament last year.
“The one thing I learned is patience. Be there with nine to play,” he said.
This coming from a premier golfer somewhat forgotten fewer than 365 days, one wrist injury and 15 pounds since winning the very tournament he’s preparing to defend in two days.
“As long as you can put yourself in the position on Sunday with nine to play,” he said, “it’s amazing how things turn out.”
Kopeka, Watson and Day tee off on Hole 1 at 7:40 a.m. ET Thursday.