Brooks Koepka's U.S. Open win proves that golfers are athletes too

Koepka calls back-to-back U.S. Open wins 'extraordinary' (1:24)

Brooks Koepka explains the challenges of winning the U.S. Open two straight years and jokes about not getting his dad a Father's Day gift. (1:24)

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- Bob Koepka grew up playing baseball and basketball, and he was a good enough pitcher to earn his spot in a college rotation at West Virginia Wesleyan. He knew what an athlete looked like back then, and he sure knew what separated a real sport from an activity or hobby masquerading as one.

"And I used to tease the guys in high school when they got a letterman's jacket for golf," Koepka said, "because I didn't think it was a sport."

All these years later, he was standing below the Shinnecock Hills clubhouse with his wife, Sherry, while waiting for his son to receive another letterman's jacket for golf. Brooks had just become the first man since Curtis Strange in 1989 to successfully defend his U.S. Open title, and his father wouldn't dare tease him on Father's Day. Nobody was daring to question the legitimacy of a two-time champ who is built like an NFL strong safety and who carries himself more like a boxer than a golfer who never learned how to give or take a punch.

Much like two of the contenders he defeated Sunday, Dustin Johnson and Tony Finau, Brooks Koepka is a child of the Tiger Woods era. Woods pancaked all the geeks in his midst, a locker room full of pencil necks who would've never earned Bob Koepka's approval in his high school days, and inspired a generation of athletic kids to accept a golf course as a viable alternative to the basketball court, the baseball diamond and the football field.

That Brooks Koepka might now carry the Tiger Effect forward is a wonderful tee-to-green thing. He cut a muscular path to his second major championship in a week when golf desperately needed that visual. The game's national championship had been reduced to the kind of whiny, prep-school debate over rules and technicalities and course conditions that could compel American fans of the four major sports to forever write off golfers as unworthy of the distinctions granted pass-rushers and power forwards.

"Brooks has never been a golf nerd," said his swing coach, Claude Harmon III. "I think he shows that if you're 13 or 14 years old and you're playing basketball or football or lacrosse or you're a wrestler, whatever sport you're doing, you look at somebody like Brooks and you go, 'I can do that. I look like that. I want to do that.' When I was growing up, golf wasn't cool. Golfers weren't really considered to be athletes. But I think what he's done and what he'll continue to do is changing that."

Koepka is a workout warrior who often partners in the gym with his good friend, Johnson, with whom he went head-to-head in the penultimate pairing Sunday. DJ was all but crowned after 36 holes. He was leading by four strokes and was five clear of Koepka, whose father thought his son was rarely sharp when he played with Johnson. Brooks had spent months living with DJ while his house was being renovated, and Bob and Sherry wondered if the chemistry between them negatively affected Brooks' game.

But they didn't wonder or worry for long. Brooks was always the most confident man or boy in the room, or in the car, even as a 12-year-old sixth grader who had made the varsity golf team at a small Florida high school, Wellington Christian. On the drive back from Brooks' first nine-hole tournament -- he shot 41 while using driver on every hole -- the boy announced that he was planning to drop out of school in four years to turn pro. Bob immediately pulled his car to the side of the road and barked, "Let me just tell you something, son. You're going to finish high school, you're going to go to college, and after that, if you're good enough, then you can turn pro."

Brooks was plenty good enough out of Florida State. Koepka hardened his game by playing in all sorts of weather on all sorts of courses overseas, winning in Japan, Turkey, Italy, Scotland and Spain long before he found himself as the defending U.S. Open champ trying to run down a buddy, Johnson, who was looking invincible as of Friday night.

But then Johnson shot 77 on a late-afternoon Saturday course the USGA would admit, on cue, was too severe. Koepka managed a 72, landing himself in the same heavyweight ring with the older, taller, more accomplished Johnson. Brooks was not the least bit afraid.

"My wife always says he's got that Koepka look," Bob Koepka said. "Sitting home last year, Erin Hills, they showed a close-up of him on the first tee. She says, 'There's that look. He's got it today.'"

Outside the Shinnecock Hills scoring room, waiting for his son to head to the championship ceremony, Bob was asked when he first saw that Koepka look on Sunday.

"Probably when I saw him coming off the putting green before the round," Bob said. "He had those steely eyes."

Koepka was too good and too tough for Johnson, and for every other man in the field. Tommy Fleetwood matched the U.S. Open record with an early 63, and Masters champ Patrick Reed made his own charge up the board. But Koepka never lost his cool. He made big putts to save pars, and his biggest to save bogey at the 11th. Johnson, meanwhile, continued his weekend-long struggle on the greens. Koepka landed a knockout punch with a birdie on the par-5 16th, and he safely bogeyed the 72nd hole when a double-bogey would've forced him into a playoff with Fleetwood.

When it was over, Koepka and Johnson fell into a warm embrace.

"But I didn't talk to him today," Koepka said. "Maybe I said something on 3, and that was about it. ... We're both competitive. We both know we're trying to beat each other and trying to win a golf tournament, trying to win a major. There's a little bit of stress."

During his final round, Koepka came across as the least stressed man on the planet. All this after a wrist injury knocked him out of the Masters and left him on the couch for a few months while he watched TV, gained weight and wondered why only three fellow players (Johnson, Bubba Watson, and Phil Mickelson) bothered to text him.

"You just get forgotten," Koepka said.

Now he will be remembered forever. Harmon, who also coaches DJ, said that Koepka "fell in love with golf again" after the wrist injury and that he has the perfect game for the U.S. Open. Koepka proved last year at Erin Hills that he could blow away a field and shoot 16 under in golf's most oppressive major, when benign conditions allow for him to fire away.

He proved Sunday that he can win a U.S. Open the old-fashioned way, too, grinding out pars to finish the tournament at a USGA-approved 1 over and making a winner out of his old man, who picked Brooks in a tournament pool organized by his friends at the Lost City Golf Club in Atlantis, Florida.

Bob and Sherry had arrived in New York a week ago Saturday to watch Justify win the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes.

"My wife said, 'If we're going to go, why don't we go up early and we can see history,'" Bob said. "We didn't know we were going to see it twice."

With golfing history in the books, Brooks Koepka's best childhood friend, Dan Gambill, spoke of how they competed at everything -- poker games, drinking games, pickup basketball games, you name it. Gambill is the pitching coach at UMass Boston. He described Koepka as a versatile and gifted athlete who excelled whether they were playing pickup soccer in Thailand or pickup basketball in the States.

"He's going to put up a decent run," Gambill said. "You can't be like, 'Oh, he's a golfer, he can't do anything.'"

With every step he took and every move he made at Shinnecock, Brooks Koepka announced that he is an athlete first, a golfer second. This was a great thing for a sport that didn't look or sound very athletic for most of a surreal and unforgettable week.