- Brooks Koepka has faced ridicule for his sudden weight loss, but he made critics eat their words with an opening-round 66 at the Masters on Thursday.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — In the grandstand overlooking the 11th green and 12th tee box at Augusta National, a polite debate unfolded Thursday as Brooks Koepka made his way down the fairway and into view.
Brooks Koepka is a beast.
Nearly everyone in the group affirmed that assessment of the still-brawny winner of two of the past three major championships, who despite losing 20-plus pounds in recent months still cut an imposing figure as he marched toward his ball. But then someone else spoke up.
No, he’s a tank.
Thursday afternoon was reminiscent of the last major Koepka played, albeit with lesser stakes than Sunday at the PGA Championship. Still, the 28-year-old gave the same impression as he did that day: of being prepared to flatten anything in his path. Koepka is as consistent as they come, punishing on his drives, precise with his irons. The 17th fairway was the first he missed all day, by a matter of inches—although his drive on hole 15 hit a tree and bounced to a perfect lie—and he led the field averaging 311.4 yards per drive. There was not a single bogey on his scorecard, and he was three under on the course’s four par-5s.
“That was probably the best ball‑striking round I've had in a major championship,” Koepka said after finishing with a 6-under par 66, tied with Bryson DeChambeau for the lead. “I left myself with a lot of good looks. … I was very impressed with putting the ball in the fairway. I drove it and I shaped it, flighted it, and coming into the greens, controlling the spin, trajectory, everything there was about as good as I could have hit it today.”
Considering Koepka’s year in 2018, none of this should seem like much of a surprise. He took the U.S. Open by a stroke, and at the PGA Championship two months later, he was the only thing between Tiger Woods and his first major championship in a decade. Koepka won by two strokes. But Koepka doesn’t have a history of success at Augusta, where he’s yet to finish in the top 10. Last season, he missed the Masters with an injured wrist. That’s all a footnote, though, to the goings-on of this year.
It’s been weird, to say the least: one part sputtering, one part body-shaming. Koepka opened the season with a win at the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in October and tied for second at the Honda Classic in March. Since then, though, he’s missed the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and tied for 56th twice, at The Players Championship and the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. All the while, he gave off an aura of discomfort, telling the Golf Channel last month that he felt “out of sorts” due to his drop from 212 pounds to 190. Going into the Masters, a player who’s won three majors in the past 22 months should never have felt like an underdog, but Koepka seemed an afterthought at best—and to many was a subject of harsh critique, if not ridicule.
In that same Golf Channel story, Koepka said that he “just want[s] to be able to eat again.” He comes off melodramatic, fantasizing about a cheeseburger. In that interview and since, he’s never explained why, exactly, he trimmed down his notoriously muscular frame—which is his prerogative, of course, but it sent conspiracy theorists tut-tutting. On the Golf Channel’s Live From show Wednesday night, Brandel Chamblee acknowledged unconfirmed speculation that Koepka had dieted for an upcoming (also unconfirmed) appearance in ESPN’s Body Issue. “For him to change his body and his body chemistry for vanity reasons for a vanity shoot,” Chamblee said on-air, “is the most reckless self-sabotage that I have ever seen of an athlete in his prime.”
And that self-sabotage, the supposed 1,800-calorie-per-day diet and total eschewing of cheeseburgers, got him here: tied for the lead at the Masters after Thursday, playing unflappably, looking a whole hell of a lot like 212-pound Brooks Koepka rather than some weakened shell of his former self. “I lift too many weights, and I'm too big to play golf,” he quipped. “And then when I lose weight, I'm too small. So, I don't know. I don't know what to say. I'm too big and I'm too small.”
Koepka continued: “Listen, I'm going to make me happy. I don't care what anybody else says. I'm doing it for me, and obviously it seems to work.” And with that, he glanced sideways at the massive electronic board hanging on the wall of Augusta’s interview room, which displayed his near perfect marks from the day. Enough said.
In the golf world, Koepka can be a bit of an anomaly. He admitted Thursday that he's such a gym rat that he has gobs of spare time this week because he’s not lifting weights. He can sleep in, watch TV, have a conversation with a friend or family member. He seems to like that outlier role—he doesn’t look like the establishment, doesn’t lift like the establishment—and uses it to channel into some false sense that he’s an underdog. Now, the script is flipped. Goliath has become David. The thing is, David won.
And maybe Koepka operates better in that space, the one where he can somehow convince himself he isn’t more likely than not to contend at any given major. It’s a hard illusion to keep up on a day like Thursday, when he made mincemeat of the back nine. The rest of his threesome, Jordan Spieth and Paul Casey, played two of the more disappointing rounds of the day—though Koepka claimed that most of the cheers he heard were not for him, but for the 2015 Masters champion. The pace of play crawled at times. Winds got gusty. There were a hundred better reasons than slightly less Popeye-esque biceps for Koepka to have had a bad day, and he didn’t.
He didn’t because he played like he always does, so laser focused that an hour might seem like 10 minutes. He had “absolutely nothing” on his mind, he said. Blank. Not a beast, but a retooled tank, programmed to keep on rolling.