KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Brooks Koepka has a pair of 68s to start the new year at Kapalua, putting him in the top 10 of PGA Tour winners gathered on Maui, still seven shots behind but reason to be pleased.
He's working hard and it's not even a major.
And he's in Hawaii, a tough place to grind.
His record in the majors compared with regular tournaments has been a running joke with Koepka ever since he went from the Challenge Tour to European Tour rookie of the year to PGA Tour winner to major champion in successive years, and since then he has been a beast in biggest events.
Koepka has as many majors —four — as regular PGA Tour titles.
“We've tried,” he said, pausing because he couldn't help laughing at the notion, “to treat everything like a major."
“And sometimes,” he continued, "it doesn't have that feel. It doesn't have that passion for me.”
He's not alone in that line of thinking, of course, though his record more clearly bears that out than most others. In 30 majors, Koepka has 16 top 10s, four of them victories, three times a silver medal. He had a chance to win them all in 2019, settling for a second straight PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.
So what happens at regular PGA Tour events?
He won the Phoenix Open last year — his ticket to Kapalua — by holing a chip on the 17th hole for his second eagle of the final round. It can be done.
The majors are just different.
“It has to do with focus,” Koepka said. “I put all my energy into it. You can win a tournament at the end of a four-week stretch and I'm not that tired. But one week, one major, I'm exhausted. It's more mental than anything. I don't take a second off, even when I'm walking. You've seen it. I can be playing mediocre coming in and it's a whole new me. From the moment you get to a major, you know you're at a major. That's the best way to describe it.
“Everyone on my team says it's like a light switch when we get on the plane.”
The topic on this day was how a golfer can try to peak for the biggest events while playing a game that is so hard to predict from one day to the next.
The Masters is three months away, not yet on his mind. It will be when he gets on the plane.
Patrick Cantlay is cut from a different cloth than Koepka in so many ways.
He had four victories last season, was the FedEx Cup champion and PGA Tour player of the year. It was a very good year. And while he briefly had the lead at the Masters late Sunday afternoon the year Tiger Woods won, Cantlay's major performance in 2021 was a disappointment. He had two missed cuts, and two other times was never in contention.
What makes his outlook different from Koepka is gearing his game around being at his best whenever and wherever and for whatever he is playing. One of these times, it's bound to be at one of the four most important weeks of the year.
“I think peaking ... I don't know what the right term is, but I think the idea of even thinking that you could be so cognizant of when your highs and lows are and being able to predict those out so they peak at the right time is a little crazy to me,” Cantlay said.
Cantlay's philosophy is preparing for every tournament as best he can, and not playing too many tournaments to keep fresh, is his best chance to perform.
“I think it would be really, really hard to bring it as hard as you could or peak if you played 35 weeks out of the year,” Cantlay said. “So the way I think about it is to play less but have more quality starts, and I don’t give much thinking about peaking or not peaking particular weeks.”
Koepka's philosophy when the light is switched on is simple: Don't make mistakes. He compares it to being a jockey, staying in the lead pack through 63 holes and then breaking out the whip for the backstretch if needed.
“But make sure no matter what that I'm not going to make a double bogey. That's my only goal at majors," Koepka said. "It's not to make as many birdies as possible. It takes two holes to get back a double. It takes one to get back a bogey."
He made it sound even simpler in 2019 at the PGA when he broke down his odds of winning by cutting out half the field as players he's going to beat, half of those left just won't play well that week, and then pressure will get to most of the rest. That makes it a small field to beat.
He went on to win that week.
Was it like that for Woods? Did he have a formula to peaking at the right time, or was he just that much better than everyone, and odds were he would play well more often than not?
“He's mentally better than everybody," Koepka said. “And he's physically gifted. Let's not get this twisted. He's pretty (expletive) good. He's got more talent in his pinkie than some guys out here, no disrespect. You combine that with the mental side, he knows he can beat everybody. That's the thing. And that's what I truly believe.”