Brooks Koepka: Defending the WM Phoenix Open title and needing another Scottsdale career boost

The two-time tournament champion ended 2021 in a form funk and he hasn’t escaped it as he prepares for his defence.

TPC Scottsdale and the Waste Management Phoenix Open have been good to Brooks Koepka.

The course demands high quality driving and clinical approaches, perhaps explaining why eight of the last nine winners have won or finished second in the US Open.

At the same time, the tournament puts on a show: 20,000 boisterous fans around the par-3 16th hole alone, as many as 200,000 on the property on a Saturday.

That first element is right up Koepka's street: a two-time winner of his national championship, and of this event, too.

After his second success last year he revealed that the second factor plays into his hands as well. "I love this place," he said. "This golf course is always fun and I struggled without fans to get momentum. I don't know, I just like showing off, I guess."

Beyond the not insubstantial truth that he's a good fit for the test Koepka also knows that the course and tournament have twice provided him with career boosts - and as he prepares for this week's edition he is badly in need of another.

Let's take a closer look at those first two wins - and also what challenges he is currently facing.

The first win in 2015

Koepka took a famously unusual route to the top of the game, opting to climb from the bottom of the golfing pyramid via the Challenge Tour in Europe. He passed that test in style and victory at the Turkish Airlines Open late in 2014 landed him the European Tour's Rookie of the Year title.

A few months late he headed to Scottsdale. American audiences knew of him - he'd finished fourth in the US Open the previous summer - but they were also yet to see him win in person.

After he carded 64-66 at the weekend to push Hideki Matsuyama and Bubba Watson into second the reputation was confirmed: this guy is good.

He also had his PGA Tour card locked up. It might have been an odd route he'd taken, but he'd got there - and with little wasted time.

"Happy to have this one as my first win," he said. "I didn't think I'd work my way up this quickly."

The second win in 2021

Quite a lot happened in the six years between Phoenix wins: Koepka won four Major Championships, finished top 10 in another eight, and topped the world rankings.

But 2020 was not good to him. Hip and knee pain wrecked his form, while the lack of fans out on the course left him flat. He traveled to Arizona 12 months ago off the back of three missed cuts.

Whereupon the old magic returned. Spectators were not permitted to return in the same numbers as the past, but they were there and they fuelled Koepka's game and his spirit.

He trailed the leaders by five heading into the final day and a 65 saw him win by one. It was a performance that reminded everyone watching just how much of a threat Koepka is in the heat of back nine Sunday battle.

"I like the way I finished that off," he said. "Hit a lot quality golf shots down the stretch. I haven't been in contention in God knows how long, so to actually hit golf shots like I'm accustomed to seeing when the pressure is on, it's a good feeling.

"I miss that pressure, I miss the atmosphere, the fans. I live for those moments."

Dark places

In the afterglow of that success Koepka admitted the previous 12 months had been harder than he had ever let on.

"Been in some dark places for about a year and a half," he said. "There was a period maybe for about two months where I just questioned whether I was ever going to be remotely the same golfer.

"My knee, no matter how much work and pain I was doing with my trainer, it just felt like it wasn't progressing. That's the frustrating part, when you feel like it's not going anywhere.

"But we stuck with it. A lot of tears, questioning yourself, dark places mentally. I'll tell you what, it takes a lot of effort just do get out of those places.

"The lowest moment probably was Memorial for me. I was in excruciating pain. I was being told that my knee was still the same. The frustration of just trying to play and knowing I'm not even close to what I'm capable of doing.

"Being in a bunker was horrific. Bending down. I remember bending down just to put the ball in front of the quarter, that was painful.

"It was like, I'm trying to compete, but I just can't. I can't swing the golf club like I want to. I didn't want to take the time off. I don't like to quit. Just battle through it and I figured it would go away.

"And I was completely wrong."

Scottsdale 2022

What of this week? As he departed last year he said "I do feel like I'm back" and he would go on to finish top six in five of his next nine starts (one of them a WGC, three of them Majors).

But there were also three missed cuts in that run and in his next 10 starts on the PGA Tour he's not logged even one top 20.

Koepka in action at TPC Scottsdale last year.
Koepka in action at TPC Scottsdale last year.

His only bright note was the Hero World Challenge where he flirted with the lead through the first 36 holes and admitted his golf had not been good enough.

"Trying to find it, man," he sighed. "Outside the Majors and the WGCs it's not been very good. Sometimes when you don't have it, you've just got to keep going, keep fighting and figure it out.

"I do see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Can Scottsdale provide that light again? Koepka hopes so.

READ MORE: Waste Management Phoenix Open: Leading contenders and angles at the raucous TPC Scottsdale

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