AUGUSTA, Ga. -- WHEN BROOKS KOEPKA finished his round, his name atop the leaderboard headed into the weekend at Augusta National, he walked alone down a sidewalk and stomped his feet to knock off dirt before going inside one of the many white buildings hidden in the shrubs, trees and flowers. The first person he saw, an old touring pro, gave him a hug and whispered something to him.
"It's good," Koepka said, looking truly happy. "Trust me."
Then wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald came over and wrapped him in another bear hug. That matched the vibe around the course the past two days. Folks are excited for Koepka, who has been on a walk through his own personal wilderness the past two years. He slipped and fell and dislocated his knee, and in the process of trying to fix it himself, he made it much, much worse. Last year at the Masters he missed the cut and went out to the player's lot by the caddie shack and punched the back window of his courtesy car. The glass held so he reared back and punched it again.
"I guess Mercedes makes a pretty good back window," he said.
The ride away from the course was silent, he said. Things started to add up. He left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf, getting a guaranteed payday that his broken game couldn't earn him in its current state. He couldn't swing and reverted to a stack and tilt designed to protect his knee. Many rounds he spent energy trying to find a line to walk that wouldn't hurt. With the effort put into protecting the injury, other stuff started to hurt. In August, at the LIV event at Donald Trump's course, he walked into the locker room after his last round and hit rock bottom.
"I think I need to go back to Claude," he told his physio.
Claude Harmon was his swing coach for all four of Koepka's major victories but they parted ways in 2020. The reunion started to fix the broken places in Koepka's swing -- and maybe in his mind, too. That's a touchy, tricky subject. In an episode of Netflix's "Full Swing" documentary, Koepka looked and sounded lost. He said he couldn't compete with the current best players in the world, which got headlines, but it wasn't what he said so much as how he looked when he said it. One shot showed him on a dock at his mansion staring off into the horizon. In another scene he and his mother talk about Scottie Scheffler.
"I guarantee you if you ask him what he's thinking about," Koepka said, "he goes, 'Nothing.'"
Talking to his mom, he wishes aloud he could go back to being the kind of golfer who just stepped up to the ball and swung and didn't disappear into circles of negative thought, awake suddenly to doubt and fear. Bending down to read a putt, when he could even manage to do it, sent him down a daisy chain: His knee hurt, which reminded him of his fall, and his dumb attempt to fix his knee himself, and to the life he had before any of that, and to the very real question about whether he'd ever live that life again. He saw the best golfers in the world at The Grove and at Medalist and missed being one of them. Mostly he missed playing in tournaments like the Masters.
"I just didn't want to miss this," he said. "I've missed enough majors. I missed like three or four through that whole stretch of 2016 to 2020. I missed a good bit of them. I felt like glass was always breaking. It's not fun. But I feel a lot better now. To be here is special."
This past January he started to feel healthy, and his life toggled out of black and white and back into color. He brought that confidence to Augusta and shot a 65 here on Thursday and a 67 today, finishing as storm clouds and red radar signatures closed in on Augusta National. In fact, as he sat down in the ESPN set for his post-round interview, the first drops started to fall.
After both rounds he said his problems had been all physical. That he wasn't having an existential crisis so much as he just hurt all the time. The questions felt informed by the television episode, and the unshakeable image of a big man made small. He was polite but always managed to let them glance off so that he never had to ever say the problem was mental. It was an injury, and things got dark, but then he healed and is now swinging the golf club with purpose again. It's strange but it almost seemed like the audience for his stonewalling wasn't the public, or the reporters, but himself. He went through a time of darkness and now that he is inching his way back into the light, maybe it's best to forget that a fall like that is even possible. If he can bury those memories way down deep, then perhaps one day he won't even remember the past year, when he lost the thing that had always made him special, and stared out into the water, looking for something that wasn't there.