Tables have turned between Johnson, Koepka
June 12, 2019
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Inside the PGA TOUR
Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka: Friends and competitors
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It’s a story as old as time, the younger brother usurping the elder. Think Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau.
DJ and Brooks.
Koepka was once known as little more than Johnson’s sidekick. They shared a swing coach and trainer. Johnson was the alpha of the pack, while Koepka was riding in his wake, trying to glean wisdom from one of this generation’s greatest players.
The tables have turned. Koepka has four majors while Johnson is still stuck on one. If there’s a hole in Johnson’s Hall of Fame resume, it’s the dearth of titles in golf’s Grand Slam events. Koepka, meanwhile, has had so much success in the majors that his overall win total is of no significance.
Johnson had a chance to turn the tables at last month’s PGA Championship. A late charge in high winds pulled him within a stroke of Koepka’s seemingly-insurmountable lead. Koepka righted the ship, though, and closed it out to confirm his place atop the game.
Now the scoreboard reads 4-1, a margin that would take months, if not years, to overcome.
Koepka is No. 1 in the world and third in the FedExCup, sitting ahead of Johnson, who ranks second and fifth, in those metrics, as well.
The dynamic has changed as their success has grown. Their pre-round workouts were once fodder for social media. They no longer lift together, and have separate trainers and swing coaches. They remain friends, but two head-strong men can only share so much space.
They own the last three U.S. Open titles and have finished no worse than second in this year’s first two majors (Koepka’s PGA win was preceded by a runner-up finish at the Masters, while Johnson finished second at both Augusta National and Bethpage Black).
“Even if we're hanging out, if we're playing cards or whatever we're doing, he wants to win,” Koepka said Tuesday. “He's not going to back down, especially, I'm sure, just because it's me. I'm sure he wants to kick my butt just as much as I want to kick his.”
Koepka may be the master of the majors, but this week they’re on Johnson’s turf. He may hail from South Carolina, but this gem on California’s Central Coast is as close as he’ll get to a home game.
Johnson is a two-time winner of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He was the 54-hole leader in the last U.S. Open here, taking a three-shot lead into the final round. He suffered the first of his major mishaps, getting tangled up in the fescue near the second green en route to a triple-bogey. He tried to hit one chip left-handed, then almost whiffed a flop shot.
“Where it ended up, it was just unlucky,” Johnson said. “If it goes in the bunker, it's fine. If it flies another foot, it probably kicks on the green. It was just one of those unlucky -- I hit a bad shot, though, period. I had a wedge in that shouldn't have missed the green. But it was a bad shot, and then compounded it on the next hole.”
A quick hook off the third tee resulted in a lost ball and a double-bogey. He shot 82 and finished eighth.
Still, Johnson has shown a propensity for playing well at Pebble Beach. He won the AT&T in 2009 and 2010 and has three other top-3 finishes here.
History is on his side. Four of the five U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach have been won by players who previously won the annual PGA TOUR stop here. The exception was Graeme McDowell in 2010. Johnson was one round away from making it a perfect 5 for 5. There are only six AT&T champions in this week’s field: Johnson, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Brandt Snedeker and Jimmy Walker.
“Obviously this time of year it plays much different than it does in the AT&T, but it still is very helpful to know the golf course,” Johnson said. “I’m very comfortable out here.”
Koepka has played that event just once, finishing eighth in 2016. It’s the size of the stage that seems to matter more than the venue, though. He’s won on classic layouts guarded by thick grass and modern courses with vast fairways.
“What he's done is fantastic. It's very impressive,” Johnson said. “He's a great player. It seems like he steps up and plays really well in big events. That's a sign of a really good player.”
Pebble Beach will play just over 7,000 yards, requiring the biggest hitters to hit driver just a handful of times. Length is still an asset, however, as is precise ball-striking into the exceptionally small greens. Johnson and Koepka both rank inside the top 20 in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and Approach-the-Green this season.
Koepka has found a successful routine for majors, inviting the same crew to stay at his rental house for each one. They bring in the same chef and cocoon Koepka from the noise that can surround a major week. They’ll watch some of the television coverage but the conversation quickly strays from golf.
“I just keep it very, very strict on major weeks,” Koepka said. “We just kind of go into our own little bubble.”
He does his own thing. There’s no longer a need for osmosis. Once an understudy, Koepka is now playing the leading role.