<
>

Brooks Koepka can change fortunes of U.S. Ryder Cup blues

Despite a swollen and painful ankle, Brooks Koepka finished in the top five of a major for the third time. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- Every two years, as the Ryder Cup nears, American golf fans go through a miserable cycle.

We talk ourselves into believing this time our team will to rise to the occasion, that we'll have good chemistry, that our captain will put together a coherent strategy, that our stars will shine and our role players will contribute.

Every two years, we get humiliated. It's deflating and depressing.

Sure, we've won Ryder Cups twice in the past 20 years (in 1999 and 2008), but that's out of 10 chances. The Europeans always seem to have better chemistry, their captain is always outfoxing our captain, and their players play loose and fearless. It's no coincidence. They are better at team golf than we are. We now have two decades of evidence to back it up.

You know how we can change that this time?

We can start by putting Brooks Koepka on the team.

We don't need a task force to figure this out. Captain Davis Love III should get on the phone Monday with the 26-year-old Koepka and tell him to take off as much time as he needs to let his ankle heal. Tell him there will be a spot waiting for him at the end of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, whether he has enough qualifying points or not.

Don't even make him sweat it. Because what Koepka did in the PGA Championship, finishing T-4 with an ankle so swollen and painful he could barely walk earlier in the week, was nothing short of inspiring.

"On Tuesday, we all tried to talk him out of playing," Koepka's caddie Richard Elliott said. "He was nearly in tears on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he decided to give it another nine holes. We found different strap for him, and he was able to kind of grit it out on Thursday. On Friday, he got some momentum going. I think the pain kind of caught up to him in the end, but it was all guts. He worked his ass off in rehab. It was unbelievable."

If the rain hadn't forced most of the leaders to play 36 holes on Sunday, it's possible Koepka might have made a run at Jimmy Walker and Jason Day. He was right there after three rounds, 2 shots off the lead. But over the last nine holes, he could barely push off his right leg. He was spent. Elliott said the pain finally caught up to Koepka, and he still managed to birdie two of the last four holes to shoot 70.

"To go from barely hitting balls on Saturday to finishing top five, I'll take that," Koepka said. "I'm kind of numb right now. It hurts, dude. I don't even feel my foot."

Koepka, who grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida, is a golfer by profession, but he looks more like a football player. You could sneak him into a Miami Dolphins locker room and no one would blink. And if you want to know the truth, he approaches golf with a similar mentality: aggressive and fearless.

Last year at the Open Championship at St. Andrews, when rules officials from the Royal & Ancient were insisting players continue on during the third round even though the wind was whipping in excess of 35 mph, Koepka stood his ground and got into a heated discussion with the official on the seventh green.

According to someone who witnessed the exchange, the official, a Scotsman, became annoyed when Koepka admonished him and failed to address him by his proper title.

I am a sir, the rules official allegedly said. And you will refer to me as such when addressing me.

I don't give a f--- who you are, Koepka responded. I'm not playing until my ball stops oscillating.

We could use that kind of mentality in the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine this September. If that sounds boorish and ungentlemanly, ask yourself this: How have our previous strategies worked out? How much fun is it watching European players soak themselves in champagne every two years, while our team is reduced to shanking our captain in a media conference?

Day might be the most talented golfer on the planet, and he is a nice guy whom everyone admires. But every week, he lets us know when he's not playing at 100 percent. It's a cold, a muscle tweak, the flu, or any one of a dozen other maladies.

Koepka played the entire week of a major with an ankle that looked like a turnip, and he downplayed his agony at every turn. (He said the injury occurred right after the U.S. Open in June, when he rolled it taking an awkward step.)

Maybe it isn't fair to Day to contrast them, but you have to admire Koepka's toughness because other players did. It wasn't until it was over that he explained he thought there was a 70 percent chance he was going to withdraw.

"We went from me just trying to move my foot like I was drawing the alphabet to putting a band on it, to eventually trying to balance on one foot," Koepka said. "It's stupid, but that's what it took."

Koepka should have been on the United States Presidents Cup team that went to South Korea in 2015. He was the 12th-ranked player in the world at the time, ranked higher than seven other Americans who did make the team, but he didn't have enough FedEx Cup points to automatically qualify, meaning he needed Jay Hass to add him as a captain's pick.

Haas instead picked his son Bill, Mickelson and J.B. Holmes when Jim Furyk was injured. It wasn't a travesty -- the U.S. hung on to win -- but it wasn't exactly forward thinking as we try to improve the state of team golf in America.

In all likelihood, Koepka secured a spot on the squad this week. Because the PGA Championship was worth double Ryder Cup points, Koepka moved into fifth place in the rankings, up from ninth. But only the top eight players automatically qualify after the Barlcays.

Before his injury forced him to withdraw from the WBC Bridgestone and miss the Open Championship, he was ranked third and cruising. But miss a few weeks, and you can tumble down the ranking fast.

Koepka said he'd already spoken to Love about his ankle and expected to have another conversation next week. For now, he's slated to play in the Travelers Championship next week in Connecticut.

"I won't need a pick," Koepka said.

That's exactly the mentality we need if we're going to have any chance to avoid another shellacking at the hands of the Europeans. Let's pair Koepka and Patrick Reed together right now, ask them to set the tone, and see what happens.