ROCHESTER, NEW YORK | If you want athletic elegance, take Rory McIlroy.
If you want blast-furnace passion, take Jon Rahm.
If you want to see someone make the game look like a Sunday stroll to the coffee shop, take Scottie Scheffler.
But if you want someone to win a major championship for you, take Brooks Koepka, whose victory Sunday in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill stamped him as the best major player in the post-Tiger Woods era.
It isn’t just that Koepka won his fifth major, becoming only the 20th player to win that many of the trophies that matter the most. It is about where he was, where he went and where he is again.
There is a brilliance to Koepka that is built from the inside, a resolve as sturdy as a barbell and a willingness to push himself where others might not go, chasing weeks like this one and moments like the one that arrived late Sunday afternoon.
The hard work had been done when Koepka’s 9-foot birdie putt rolled to a stop inches from the cup on Oak Hill’s 18th green. With the setting sun shining on his face and a giant bleacher wall of fans behind the green, Koepka allowed a smile to break across his face as he walked to play the final stroke of this championship.
Perhaps only Koepka understood how far away the moment had been and how deep the satisfaction ran within him. When he tapped in for his closing par, Koepka clenched his fist and leaned into the moment before an extended hug with caddie Ricky Elliott, who went to work for Koepka 10 years ago at the last PGA Championship played here.
Eventually, Koepka remembered his golf ball was still in the hole, and when he pulled it out, he flung it high into the bleachers like a man throwing off a weighted vest after climbing a mountain.
“It feels pretty damned good,” Koepka said after his two-stroke victory over Scheffler and Viktor Hovland.
To get to Sunday – actually the entirety of the week at Oak Hill – means going back to two places: the lost world in which Koepka found himself when his injured right knee threatened his golf career, and the Sunday night last month after he couldn’t finish off the Masters that he led by two strokes entering the final round.
Koepka tried to play through his knee issues and explain the challenges while the poor results accumulated. It wasn’t until Koepka revealed the level of his vulnerability in the Netflix “Full Swing” documentary that it fully resonated.
“He’s always been a man that’s comfortable in uncomfortable situations, and he was uncomfortable with his fitness and the way things were going.”
“He just opened up,” said Pete Cowen, Koepka’s long-time short-game coach. “You knew where he was. We had a chat after that. I said if it was me, I wouldn’t have done that, but he put it off his chest. He got it off his chest, at least. Everybody said that was stupid of you to do that. He said, I’m just telling the truth. If the truth is wrong, then I’m wrong, but I got it off my chest.
Koepka was unable to squat into his downswings and use the ground to create the force that is so much a part of his game. Surgery fixed the knee, but it required months of rehabilitation, with no promise that he would be as good as he had been.
“I don't know if I considered retiring, but I knew I wasn't – if I couldn't play the way I wanted to play, then I was definitely going to give it up. I mean, the thought definitely kind of crossed my mind,” he said.
But Koepka refused to surrender without a full fight.
For all of the shine and sparkle that comes with winning a major, it’s as tough as doing road work in a Texas summer. It’s not just about throwing punches but about absorbing them, and Koepka eats asphalt for lunch.
Koepka revels in the warrior mentality, seeing golf as an athlete’s game, no different than the way football players and boxers see their sports. He plays golf as if it’s a contact sport.
“He probably lost a bit of belief in himself,” Elliott said. “It’s golf, isn’t it? Whenever you’re playing great, you think you’ll never lose it and when you’re playing bad you never think you will get it back. He had lost a lot of confidence in himself, and the only way to get confidence is to go out and compete.”
Fast forward to the Masters last month, where it was cold and wet and Koepka shot a closing 75 that landed like a gut punch. He walked stone-faced into the scoring room that Sunday afternoon while the crowd cheered Jon Rahm’s victory.
Koepka spent a sleepless night going over what happened and came to some realizations. He won’t elaborate on what he discovered, only to vow that it would never happen again.
The photos of Koepka with the Wanamaker Trophy – his third photo shoot with the PGA Championship hardware – stand as testimony to his private vow.
“I definitely wouldn't have, I don't think, won today if that didn't happen, right?” Koepka said.
“Definitely take it and keep using it going forward for each event, each major, any time I'm in contention, but I'm not going to share. I can't give away all the secrets.”
Starting with a one-stroke lead in the final round at Oak Hill, Koepka birdied the second, third and fourth holes to move three clear of the field, a sis, boom, bah start.
“I guess maybe if anybody doubted it from Augusta or whatever, any doubts anybody on TV might have or whatever, I'm back, I'm here.”
He dropped shots at the sixth and seventh holes, whittling his lead to one stroke, but Koepka never surrendered the lead. When he needed big swings, he made them.
Koepka muscled a bunker shot onto the green from a seemingly impossible spot at the 11th, he dripped a 10-foot downhill birdie putt into the hole at 12 to stay one ahead of Hovland and he flew a high draw tee shot onto the par-4 14th green, not his natural ball flight.
His victory, No. 9 on the PGA Tour, will be seen by some as validation for LIV Golf, which had three players tied for fourth or better at the Masters. It also thrusts Koepka deep into the Ryder Cup conversation, making it possible for him to earn one of the six automatic spots on the U.S. team that will play in Rome in September.
Earlier in the week, Koepka made clear his desire to play for the American side. PGA of America officials and captain Zach Johnson have been non-committal about whether they will include LIV members on the team.
“All it does, I just think, I guess, validates it for myself,” Koepka said. “I guess maybe if anybody doubted it from Augusta or whatever, any doubts anybody on TV might have or whatever, I'm back, I'm here.”
It’s a place few others have ever been.
Top: Koepka picks up his fifth major title, including his third PGA Championship.
PHOTOS: DARREN CARROLL, PGA OF AMERICA