Brooks Koepka used to be ruthless but he missed a golden Masters chance | Andy Bull

The player who won four majors in three years was an ice-cool closer but he has not yet fully recovered from kneecap accident

It was just gone four o’clock when Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka made it to Juniper, Augusta’s precipitous little par-three 6th. The sun had come out, the clouds had scattered and the mercury was finally rising. Koepka had only just given up the lead he had been holding since he made a birdie to pull one shot clear on Friday morning. He and Rahm were tied in first place now, 10 under par, four shots clear of the field, and the gallery all around was waiting for Koepka to come back at him. Rahm had the honour. His tee shot was off. It landed on the front lip of the green and rolled back off it, 25 yards shy.

So this was Koepka’s opportunity. And he missed it. Koepka blew his tee shot way over the other way, off the back of the green and 10 yards on again. He watched Rahm swish a chip up to 6ft, settled himself for his – and pushed it five, 10, 15, 20, 25 feet from where he needed it to be. More often than not, Koepka scowls when he hits a bad shot. But after this one he just watched, dumbstruck, as the ball skittered further and further away from him, taking his hold on the 87th Masters with it.

Before this week Koepka had held the lead at the start of the last round of a major three times in his life: at the US Open at Shinnecock Hills in 2018, the PGA Championship at Bellerive later that same year and the PGA Championship again at Bethpage Black 12 months later. He won all three tournaments. Back then Koepka was playing from what David Mamet’s salesmen might call the ABC school of golf. Always. Be. Closing. He was utterly ruthless in the pursuit of majors, which were, he said repeatedly, the only tournaments he cared about.

It was six months after that second PGA Championship that Koepka shattered his kneecap in a freak accident. It took him three years to recover properly from it and there were plenty of points along the way when he was not sure if he ever would. He admitted this week that it was one of the reasons he ended up quitting the PGA Tour to join LIV last year, a bit of him wondered if his best days were behind him, whether he would ever be able to compete on even terms with Rahm and the rest of them again. Until this week plenty of people would have agreed with him.

It was only this January that Koepka began to feel anything like himself again. And for the first three days of this tournament, he played that way. He opened with a round of 65 and followed it with a flawless 67, in which he made a series of saves and picked up shots at the par-fives. He played both rounds the old way, following one good decision after another. There are plenty of better shotmakers in golf but not many so adept at understanding exactly what they need to in each new moment and then following through on it.

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There was a brilliant example of it during his third round early on Sunday morning. When he came to the 10th, he was two shots in front of Rahm at the time. Both chose to play the same sort of shot off the tee, a draw around the corner. Rahm caught his perfectly but Koepka did not. His ball fetched up in the pine straw, beneath a clump of trees on the right hand side of the fairway. Only moments earlier Collin Morikawa’s tee shot had fetched up in the very same place and he had to take a one-shot penalty for an unplayable lie.

Koepka, though, found he had a route out. He chopped his ball out square, hit a brilliant approach on to the front of the green and somehow ended up coming away with a par. It was a moment that made one believe what he had said on Friday evening, when he was asked how he compared himself now with the player who won those four majors, “I feel the same, man. I’m able to do everything I need to. And the confidence is there. The confidence was lost just because of my knee and that was it.”

It turns out now that really he was still trying to persuade himself. Because as Sunday wore on it became clear that everything he has been through has had more of an effect on him than he is willing to admit. As the day wore on, he got worse and worse, the bogeys racked up, the birdies passed by. His game was blighted by wild drives, skittish chips and putts that stopped short or passed by wide. For the first time in his life, when the heavy pressure of frontrunning in a major came down, Koepka’s game failed him. He may yet win that fifth major he is seeking. But after his performance here, it is obvious he has got a way to go before he gets back to the sort of pitiless form that won him the first four of them.


Andy Bull at Augusta

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