Brooks Koepka 'still the same me' after rise to superstardom since last appearance in Abu Dhabi
The five years between visits to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA have seen the American become an established member of golf's elite and a multiple major winner
The last time Brooks Koepka played competitive golf in Abu Dhabi, he shot rounds of 77 and 73 at the National Course, which added up to a tournament total of 6-over par.
It was only good enough for a tie for 109th in the 2014 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA, a position he shared with Soren Hansen and Kristoffer Broberg. There were only 14 players below them in the field.
Five years on, the American tends to keep rather different company. He arrived in the capital this week as arguably the most dominant player in golf at present, the PGA player of the year, and with three major titles to his name in the past season and a half. And he started this year as the world No 1.
Last season, he became just the fifth player to win US Open and US PGA Championship titles in the same season, following the illustrious names of Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
Not bad for someone who initially eked his way into the professional game via Europe’s second-tier Challenge Tour, then its main tour, before he felt ready to return to conquer his homeland.
Back in 2014, that faltering start in Abu Dhabi belied the fact he went on to pick up the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year Award, as the highest-placed newcomer in the Race to Dubai.
Now he is big time, but he says he still the same man who was happy to hitch a ride on a moped in Thailand, or take an auto-rickshaw around the streets of India while he was on his global grand tour.
“I hope not,” Koepka said when asked if he is being treated any differently since he started his major-winning spree.
“I’m still the same me. I don’t know if people are afraid to come up and say hi, but they shouldn’t be. I’m still the same me I was from the beginning.”
He seems happy to be back at his old haunts, too. When the returning star was on his way in to his pre-tournament media briefing at the Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort and Spa on Monday, his paths crossed with Henrik Stenson.
Stenson was immediately shooting the breeze with his American rival, and suggesting the assembled media grill him on how he is going with writing a children’s book.
“The camaraderie over here is a bit different,” Koepka said. “I like it more, personally, than in the States. There are 30 or 40 guys on a flight, basically the whole flight is players, caddies, and everyone hangs out in two or three hotels.
“I think that is fun. Everyone is laughing and joking. The attitude over here is kind of different. The sense of humour is a little better. It feels like I’m reliving those memories of being on the European Tour and the Challenge Tour over here.
“There are a lot of guys you don’t get to see very often. I made some great friendships over here when I was playing. Not getting to see them all the time isn’t always fun.
“It makes it more special seeing everyone and getting the chance to say hello.”
Not that he is considering straddling both tours just yet. Patrick Reed, who won one of the two majors that Koepka left on the table last year, proved that it is possible for American players to take on both.
Reed, the US Masters champion, has held membership of the PGA and European Tours for the past two seasons. He finished second in last year’s Race to Dubai standings.
Paul Radley: Five players to watch at Abu Dhabi Golf Championhip
When is Abu Dhabi Championship? Lowdown on 2019 event
Koepka has no plans to follow the path of his Ryder Cup colleague at present, though.
“It is very difficult, but I try to come over here as much as I can,” Koepka said. “I enjoy playing over here, it’s fun. This place [Abu Dhabi] suits me really well. I feel like it’s a major-championship golf course, the way it is set up.”
The 28-year-old world No 2 will have his work cut out matching his feats of last season, but he says he did not achieve all of the goals he set himself then.
Among more mundane goals – such as going to bed at 10 o’clock every night on the road, and working out five days a week – he says he wanted to make the cut every time he played. The one he missed still grates. And he wanted to stay healthy, which was a struggle because of the wrist injury he started the year with.
One big tick was the one about winning a major, and multiple times on tour. “I knocked those off,” he said.
“I set goals every year. This year, No 1 was pretty clear: stay healthy.
“I write a bunch of different goals down, and I think I did about half of them last year. I just want to improve on that and make sure I knock a few more off that list.”
Updated: January 15, 2019 09:20 AM