Four top-four finishes later, Brooks Koepka’s Body shoot seems just fine


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The full 2019 Body Issue experience launches on Sept. 4. In the meantime, check out 10 years of Body archives.

In the sports world, every hour of every day, we are inundated with the assertion that this shot, this showdown — this heroic triumph or humiliating defeat — will become a permanent part of an athlete’s Wikipedia page.

It is almost always a lie.

Here is the more complicated, but honest truth: There is a lot of meaningless filler in the weekly ebb and flow of sports. It’s not polite to point this out, primarily because it feels disrespectful to the thousands of consumers who devote considerable time and money to following every season, but the rising and receding emotional tides of sports are actually essential to the health of the product. The idea that the great athletes are the ones who give 100% effort 100% of the time is a slogan fit for an inspirational poster, but it is not the real way of the world.

This is why golfer Brooks Koepka might be the most honest athlete of 2019. Koepka is great when he needs to be. He is indifferent when competing in events of specious importance. (“Regular tournaments, I don’t practice,” he has said. “If you’ve seen me on TV, that’s when I play golf.”) Whether or not this is as admirable as the attitude Tiger Woods took in his prime — grinding over every shot in every tournament like the fate of the universe hung in the balance — Koepka’s candor about his strategic approach has been strangely refreshing. And while there is an admittedly meta and self-referential aspect of pointing this out, his inclusion in the ESPN The Magazine Body Issue this year can be viewed as an enjoyable rebuke to the “Every moment matters!” ethos that has saturated sports marketing.

To recap, when we approached Koepka about posing for the Body Issue at the end of 2018 — a year in which he won two majors and became the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world — he was ecstatic. It was something he’d been quietly coveting for years. “I’ve always wanted to do it,” Koepka said. “I thought it’d be so cool. I’m in the best shape of my life probably right now. And I’m excited about it.”

Koepka, like most athletes we ask to pose, set out to sculpt and shape his body, hoping to look his absolute best for his March photo shoot. In his case, that meant traveling with a chef, extra hours in the gym and eliminating (for the most part) the cheeseburgers and chicken tenders he sheepishly loves. It wasn’t a big departure from his normal routine, but he did intensify his approach. “I try to lose about 10-12 pounds every offseason,” Koepka told us. “Honestly, I’m no Tom Brady. I’m not perfect. I don’t want to be. You know, I like to have my cheat meals every once in a while. … A lot less knowing I had the shoot coming up.”

As a result, Koepka dropped 22 pounds in four months, then showed up at the Players Championship weighing 190 pounds. But what he gained in aesthetics, he surrendered in golfing ability. Having risen to the top of the sport on the strength of his prodigious drives and elite ballstriking, Koepka’s golf swing suddenly looked average. Statistically, he tumbled from ninth on the tour in strokes gained off the tee to an eye-popping 46th. Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, no wallflower when it comes to sharing his opinion, let Koepka have it after he finished T-56th at the Players. “For him to change his body and his body chemistry for vanity reasons for a vanity shoot is the most reckless self-sabotage that I have ever seen of an athlete in his prime,” Chamblee said. “To do something that takes you out of your game, to change your game completely, to see someone whose body has changed drastically, it’s never worked out very well. It’s led to deterioration.”

Koepka — as is his way — bristled at the criticism, essentially calling it hysteria. “It’s only four months of my career,” he said. “I lift all the time; I lift too many weights, and I’m too big to play golf. Then when I lose weight, I’m too small. I don’t know what to say. I’m too big and I’m too small. Listen, I’m going to make me happy.”

When Chamblee followed up by saying he still needed to be convinced Koepka was mentally tough enough to win the Masters — even though he’d already won two U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship — Koepka privately seethed, admitting later it was the most slighted he’d ever felt. (In his entire life! Even after The Mag left him off of the Dominant 20 list!) Had Koepka’s season imploded, Chamblee and other critics would have looked prescient, and Koepka (and perhaps, um, ESPN) would have had egg whites all over our faces.

Instead something much more interesting happened: Koepka nearly won the Masters, finishing second to Woods by a stroke in one of the most memorable final rounds in the last decade. He won a brutally difficult PGA Championship at Bethpage, a performance that Chamblee joked felt like Koepka personally giving him a middle finger. He almost won a third straight U.S. Open, finishing second to Gary Woodland at Pebble Beach, and he finished fourth at the Open Championship at Royal Portrush. He became only the fourth player in history to finish in the top four at all the majors in one season, joining Jack Nicklaus, Woods and Jordan Spieth. In the four tournaments that everyone agrees truly do matter, Koepka was a cumulative 36 under par. The next-best golfer was Xander Schauffele at 14 under.

“I think if other people had done what I had done, you know, their face would have been on the dollar bill or, you know, Mount Rushmore, or something like that,” Koepka says.

Koepka is, admittedly, not everyone’s cup of tea. (Or to put it in more Koepka-friendly terms, not everyone’s flavor of protein shake.) It would undoubtedly be frustrating, as a big Koepka fan, to attend the Canadian Open or the Travelers Championship hoping to catch a glimpse of greatness and watch him go through the motions, then hear him admit that he “couldn’t care less” how he finished at the former and caught himself “yawning on the golf course” at the latter. (He finished 50th and 57th, respectively.) It would be like watching Michael Jordan jog up and down the court and shoot underhanded in a regular-season game against the Sacramento Kings during the height of his powers.

But Koepka’s ability to turn on his talents — then off — on command raises some fascinating questions for the future of golf: What happens when the best player in the sport admits the regular season is, at least to him, essentially meaningless?

For years, there has been a hearty debate over whether or not the Players Championship should be considered the sport’s fifth major. The argument in favor of doing it has merit. Because it has no amateurs or teaching professionals, no spots saved for past champions now well past their prime, its strength of field is stronger than that of any of the other majors. The tour has subtly tried to push this narrative in its marketing, referring to the Players and the FedEx Cup playoffs as part of “The Season of Championships” that bookends the majors. Koepka, though, might have put an end to that debate by essentially fasting before the Players this year. Think he would have made that decision with the U.S. Open in play? (Sorry about that one, PGA Tour. Your loss was apparently ESPN The Magazine’s gain!)

You might look at Koepka’s shoot and see an act of vanity, or see someone whose priorities are skewed. But the exact opposite could just as easily be true. What if Koepka is trying to show us that, if you focus on what really matters, you don’t need to bore yourself with life’s small potatoes? If you can cut out carbs, why can’t you also cut out tournaments that have no bearing on your financial security or career legacy? Sure, if he pulls off a win this weekend, the FedEx Cup and Tour Championship would be a charming cherry on top of a historic season, but who is going to remember any of it two decades from now?

Koepka might look like an Adonis, but his mental approach seems to mirror the larger sports fandom that has only a passing interest in golf. Their true Season of Championships begins when players drive down Magnolia Lane, and it ends with the hoisting of the Claret Jug, somewhere on the shores of the United Kingdom.

One of these years, I’d wager Koepka is going to kick it all off by picking the Champions Dinner at the Masters. You can bet on a menu low on carbs but packed with protein.

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