Koepka back to winning ways at Waste Management Phoenix OpenAfter lengthy struggle with injuries, makes up five-shot deficit with final-round 65
February 07, 2021
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Brooks Koepka wins for second time at Waste Management
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – For the last 18 months the question has been asked in TV studios, press boxes and grill rooms. Heck, even Koepka himself asked it.
“There was a period maybe for about two months where I just questioned whether I was ever going to be the same,” he said after shooting a final-round 65 to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open by a shot over Xander Schauffele (71) and Kyoung-Hoon Lee (68). “Whether I was even going to be somewhat remotely the same golfer that I ever was.”
Comebacks were the story of the week, what with Schauffele chasing his first victory in over two years and Jordan Spieth (72, T4) trying to win for the first time in three and a half.
Koepka, though, turned his comeback into a handcrafted, 20-pound “Chrystal Thunderbird” trophy of crystal on a mesquite-wood base. His pedal-to-the-mettle finish salted away his eighth PGA TOUR title and moved him from 73rd to 12th in the FedExCup. After battling a left knee injury for much of the last year and a half, he’s finally 100 percent, and it showed.
Shaking off a bogey at the second hole, he made two eagles, went 5 under for the last six holes for the second straight day, overcame a five-shot deficit, and won for the first time since the 2019 World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
“It feels like it’s been forever,” he said after collecting his second Waste Management Phoenix Open title (2015) – and breaking a streak of three straight missed cuts coming into the week.
Steve Stricker (67, T4), who at 53 was vying to become the oldest-ever TOUR winner, played with Koepka and was more than an interested observer. He will captain the U.S. Ryder Cup Team at Whistling Straits later this year, and Koepka is a mainstay on such teams.
“I catch myself though rooting for guys, like Brooks, and then I've got to pull myself back and say, Wait a second, I'm trying to win this thing, too,” Stricker said with a laugh. “I want to see him play well because I think he can be a huge help to this team in September.”
Part of what Koepka did well, Stricker added, was simply hang around. After making eagle at the par-5 third hole, he made nine straight pars to set up his big finish from 13-18. The biggest shot of that stretch was arguably his chip-in for eagle at the driveable, par-4 17th hole.
Brooks Koepka chips in for clutch eagle at Waste Management
“Last year didn’t happen,” Koepka said earlier in the week.
His victory Sunday further puts an especially challenging period in the rear-view mirror.
Koepka had stem cell treatment on his left knee in 2019, slipped on wet concrete and re-injured the tendon late that year. He pulled out of the Presidents Cup, and was never healthy in 2020. The knee wasn’t torn enough to require surgery, but Koepka knew it didn’t feel right. He says the low point came in July as he shot a final-round 80 for a T62 finish at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide.
“I was in excruciating pain,” he said.
Unable to shift his weight, he overburdened his hip and tore his labrum. Still, he somehow got into contention at the PGA Championship in August, only to suffer a poor final round and finish T29. Something had to give. He skipped the FedExCup Playoffs and U.S. Open for more rehab, including more stem cell therapy on his left knee and a cortisone injection in his hip.
“My knee, no matter how much work and pain I was doing with Derek, my trainer, it just felt like it wasn't progressing,” Koepka said. “… But we stuck with it. Those dark places, a lot of tears, questioning yourself, and in dark places mentally. You’ve got to come out of that.”
When he finally did, he was healthy but found himself missing the energy of the fans. With no one to play for, he said, it felt like he was just out for a casual round.
“At the end of the day we are kind of entertainers,” Koepka said earlier this week. “You know, it's felt like going to play at home with my brother or my dad or buddies or something like that, and I'll be honest, when I go play with them, I play terrible as well. I need the mojo.”
At the Waste Management, where there were bigger galleries than at any time since last March – a maximum of 5,000 fans per day – the mojo was back. Not all the way, but it was a start. And Koepka felt it. After gritting his teeth, working through the pain, and biding his time, he used it to fuel his closing kick in sunny Scottsdale. Nothing is wrong with Brooks Koepka anymore.