PARIS -- At some point during the past several years, as Brooks Koepka rose to become one of the best golfers in the world, he developed a pre-shot ritual with his driver that feels almost like a nod to his baseball roots. (His great-uncle Dick Groat was the National League MVP with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960; Koepka has said if he could do it all over again, he'd focus on baseball instead of golf.) Koepka tees up his ball, intentionally a little too high, and while it's balanced on the tee, he'll tap it down -- just a hair -- using only the bottom of his driver, like he's Barry Bonds or Kirk Gibson tapping home plate with a bat before they dig in and let loose a vicious lash at the ball.
There is a bit of swagger to it, a pinch of arrogance. If you've ever clumsily bumped your ball off the tee at address, then had to embarrassingly re-tee, you're well aware that it also requires some pretty exceptional hand-eye coordination.
But for all of Koepka's bravado, he couldn't bring himself to do it in his opening Ryder Cup match at Hazeltine two years ago. He was afraid, he later confessed to his dad, Bob, that if he screwed it up, and the ball fell off, he'd have to bend down and place it on the tee with his hand. If he had to do that, everyone would be able to see his hands shaking.
"He told me later, 'I've never been nervous over a golf shot except that one,'" Bob Koepka said.
That small moment -- and what came right after it -- says a lot about both the pressure of the Ryder Cup, and Brooks Koepka.
The pressure that the event puts players under is so great, it managed to (briefly) rattle a man who might be golf's most unflappable pressure player. But then Koepka stepped to the tee and absolutely nuked the ball 300-plus yards, right down the center of the fairway. He then hit such a good approach, it stopped a foot from the hole. It was the first of three straight birdies Koepka made to open the match against Martin Kaymer and Danny Willett. He and Brandt Snedeker dominated, winning 5 and 4 for the United States. A Ryder Cup stalwart was born, as Koepka went 3-1 that week and helped the Americans cruise to victory.
A lot has happened since that Ryder Cup two years ago. Koepka has won three majors, including two this season. In doing so, he's establishing himself as perhaps the most formidable big-game hunter of his generation. He has just one regular-season PGA Tour victory, the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open. But get him in a major, or a Ryder Cup, and the people around him can actually see his focus narrow, his preparation intensify. He is not one for chest-bumping theatrics or egging on a hostile crowd the way Patrick Reed is, but if the United States is going to win this Ryder Cup this week on European soil for the first time since 1993, it will likely be because Koepka turned in another dominant performance.
"I was [at the gym] with Dustin [Johnson], and everybody wanted a picture with Dustin. They were talking about him as we left, and I was just standing there, laughing. They were like, 'Did you see that No. 1 player in the world was here?' It's like, yeah, OK. I don't know what to say to that." Brooks Koepka, at this year's PGA Championship, which he won
"I think he should probably focus a little harder every week, but I do think he digs a little deeper for the big events," Bob Koepka said. "The tougher the golf course, the better it is for him."
How much respect Koepka deserves for his accomplishments, and how much he's received for them, has been something of a sensitive topic this year on the PGA Tour, particularly in Koepka's camp. Though he has risen to No. 2 in the world, it's become obvious Koepka doesn't feel golf media -- or the sport's fans -- are giving him the attention that Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson frequently receive. Koepka isn't particularly forthcoming in interviews, but when he does open up, he'll sometimes share anecdotes he is clearly using to fuel the narrative of disrespect. There is some humor in them, but also an edge. In the midst of the PGA Championship, Koepka told a story about working out each day at a local gym with Dustin Johnson (then the No. 1 player in the world and Koepka's close friend) and being a bit surprised he went unrecognized. Tiger Woods' return to the winner's circle last week is likely to shove Koepka's historic season even further into the shadows.
"I was in there with Dustin, and everybody wanted a picture with Dustin," Koepka said. "They were talking about him as we left, and I was just standing there, laughing. They were like, 'Did you see that No. 1 player in the world was here?' It's like, yeah, OK. I don't know what to say to that."
Koepka's swing coach, Claude Harmon III, also let the media know Koepka was both annoyed and motivated by the fact that no one wanted to interview him after he shot a 1-under 69 in the opening round of the PGA Championship, a day when 33 players shot the same score or better.
"He's the reigning U.S. Open champion, and he doesn't get one interview request?" Harmon said. "If you guys think that goes unnoticed, it doesn't. But thanks!"
When Koepka wasn't asked to do a pre-tournament press conference at the Tour Championship, it was like pouring gasoline on an open flame of disrespect. A writer from Golf Digest tracked him down on the course for a comment, and Koepka didn't hold back.
"[The media] has their guys they want to talk to. I'm not one of them and that's fine. ... You've got guys who will kiss up, and I'm not going to kiss up. I don't need to kiss anyone's butt. I'm here to play golf. I'm not here to do anything else. A lot of guys are known for the stuff they do off the golf course and who they like to hang around with. It's pretty obvious who's doing that and who isn't. I don't need to bend over backwards to be friends with anyone [in the media], but certain guys do that because they want their names written. I'd rather be written about because of my play."
Harmon's position that Koepka continues to be overlooked, while debatable, does raise interesting questions: What matters on the PGA Tour? Is it winning majors? Winning events on a weekly basis? Connecting with fans in an engaging way? Koepka concedes he can sometimes seem robotic, even as he's pounding the ball off the tee and rolling in long putts, but that's just the way he's wired.
"It probably looks like I could care less, but sometimes I do run hot and I can be excited," Koepka says. "I just won't show it to anybody because I don't think -- I don't want anybody to know."
It's not that Koepka doesn't care about winning smaller events either, he says. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's that -- outside the majors -- he tends to press too much. He plays too aggressive. Eleven times since he began playing regularly on the PGA Tour in 2014, Koepka has finished in the top 3 of an event. He's convinced if he'd played the way he does in the big events, a style he describes as "conservatively aggressive," he would have more wins.
"I'm trying to be better about making sure that every PGA Tour event, that I am as focused as I am the majors," Koepka said. "And I probably haven't done the best job at that."
"[The media] has their guys they want to talk to. I'm not one of them and that's fine. ... You've got guys who will kiss up, and I'm not going to kiss up. I don't need to kiss anyone's butt. I'm here to play golf." Brooks Koepka, to Golf Digest
What's complicated, when considering Koepka's occasionally gruff personality and his tepid popularity with golf fans, is that the two are very likely intertwined. At the beginning of his career, he made it clear in interviews that golf wasn't something he loved, it was something he did for a living.
"'I'm not a big golf nerd," Koepka said in 2016. "I'm not big on the history. At home, I'm definitely not watching golf. I'd rather be watching baseball, basketball, football, whatever it is."
Whatever their shortcomings might be, Spieth, Thomas and Rory McIlroy have always been pretty effusive about golf and their place within the game's history, and also good at explaining why it's their passion. It seems contradictory of Koepka to distance himself from golf's "nerds" while at the same time craving their attention. But Bob Koepka believes some of that has been a misunderstanding, a by-product of his son's curt personality.
"He doesn't open up to everybody," Bob Koepka said. "He's pretty private about a lot of things. He's not shy by any means, but he was never very talkative. That's always been his personality."
Koepka injured his wrist in a freak accident this spring when he tried to stop his swing when it was already in motion because an official foolishly drove a cart directly in front of him on the driving range, and the result was tendon damage. It forced him to miss the Masters, and it also forced him to reassess his relationship with golf.
"I think he's always loved the game," Bob Koepka said. "I think you don't always appreciate it because it's always there. When it was taken away from him, I think he was like 'Well, that's all I've ever done. I really do like what I'm doing. I really do want to be out there because this is what I love to do.'"
Brooks spent months on his couch, as bored as he'd ever been in his life, unsure of what his future looked like. Never one to reach out much, he texted and called his dad frequently for the first time in years.
"It ended some guys' careers out here, the injury," Koepka said. "I was in a soft cast for two-and-a-half months. I kept trying to think positive and just see where I am. I remember when I took the cast off, I went to go push down on the shampoo bottle and it hurt to do that. I was like, man, I'm in for a really long recovery."
What he discovered, watching the Masters from his couch, is that he really missed the game he'd once dissed. He missed the camaraderie and the competition. He was miserable being away from it, a feeling he never quite imagined.
"I don't want to say I was depressed, but I was definitely down," Koepka said. "I got fat, gained about 15 to 20 pounds. That's never fun. ... To finally get the OK from the doctors [to train again], I've never been more focused, more driven, more excited to play and really embracing what's around me."
The version of Koepka who emerged after the injury might be the face of American golf (at least in majors) for years to come. It was always hard to resist wondering, during Tiger Woods' injury-riddled absence, how the young stars who grew up idolizing him would handle a Tiger charge in a major. Would they wilt the way Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson and Lee Westwood did? Koepka answered that question with a confident smirk at the PGA Championship at Bellerive in August, holding off a 64 from Woods on Sunday to win his third major. It looked like the kind of golf Woods used to play: Pound the ball off the tee, never make a mistake when it matters, leave your opponents gasping for air. Koepka was so focused coming into the tournament, he wasn't even fazed when he realized his driver was cracked the day he arrived in St. Louis. A similar situation sent Spieth into a tailspin of self-doubt at the 2016 Masters. Koepka simply shrugged it off and dominated.
"To me, he's the epitome of what modern golf is," Harmon said. "A lot of guys who play with him will say to me, privately, they had no idea his short game was that good. They had no idea his putting was that good. I think he gets overlooked because he just drives it so far."
Despite all that, and the fact that he's won three of the last five majors he's entered, Koepka likely won't be the focus this week. Woods is back in the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2014, Thomas is making his Ryder Cup debut, and Patrick Reed will likely be pumping his fist and shushing European fans after every birdie putt. Koepka, however, might be the Americans' most comfortable player on foreign soil.
Unlike the majority of his peers, he didn't vault up the ranks of American golf with ease. He failed to qualify for the Web.com Tour out of college and decided his best path to the PGA Tour was to go to Europe, play as many Challenge Tour events as he could, and try to earn status on the European Tour. It was a lonely pursuit, traveling to a new foreign country each week, never knowing what the weather was going to be like or where he could feel comfortable eating. It forced him to grow up in ways he didn't realize he needed to do.
He won three times on the Challenge Tour in 2013 (in Scotland, Spain and Italy), then won the Turkish Airlines Open at the beginning of 2014 (an official European Tour event) to cement his status as a future star. American Ryder Cup teams have often struggled in Europe because their style of golf is so different from that in the States, and the weather is so unpredictable. Koepka learned to embrace those elements long ago.
"To maybe spend a year on the [Web.com], I wouldn't be the person I am today," Koepka said. "I definitely learned a lot about myself traveling Europe. You're on your own for months at a time. Traveling the world is so much fun. I mean, I had a blast doing it. I really did. And I wouldn't change it for the world."
There will be plenty of nerves this week in Paris. There will be a raucous crowd on the first tee of Le Golf National and considerable pressure on the Americans (they are the favorites) to win consecutive Ryder Cups for the first time in 25 years. But watch Koepka right before he hits his opening tee shot. There is a good chance he'll tee up a Titleist a hair too high, then tap it down using only his driver, more proof that he is not the player he was in 2016.
He is, remarkably, even better.