Culture / Sporting Life

Brooks Koepka Closes Down the Practice Range, Praises Jim Crane as Peyton Manning Hangs Around — Day One at a Rain Resistant Houston Open

The Bayou City's PGA Tour Stop is a Class Above

BY // 11.11.21

The sun is long gone, play at the Houston Open has been suspended due to darkness for more than an hour, and Brooks Koepka continues to hit balls on the driving range at Memorial Park. Koepka is the last pro on the range and has been for a good 30-plus minutes now. While the area right around where he’s hitting from is lit up, he’s smashing drives into a pitch black sky.

Koepka asks his caddie Ricky Elliott and his swing coach Pete Cowen to film his swings on an iPhone, stopping to look at almost each one before taking another practice swipe. Koepka goes through one entire green bucket filled with golf balls — and then the members of his small team grab some more. With every other golfer in the field long gone.

It is fascinating behind the scenes look at one of the top golfers in the world’s relentlessly driven mindset. Brooks Koepka is searching for something and he’s going to keep grinding until it feels like he’s closer to finding it.

“I don’t know man,” Koepka tells PaperCity when I ask him what has him hitting balls so late into the evening. “I’m just playing like dog shit. I’m trying to figure it out.”

Koepka is even par after nine holes of the newly dubbed Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open on Thursday. He’s in one of the later groups to tee off after a two hour and 30 minute rain delay in the morning pushed back play. Koepka is looking at playing 27 holes on Friday, plenty of runway to gain ground on the partial round one leaders of Russell Henley, Talor Gooch and Marc Leishman, who all posted 5-under 65s and Luke List, who is five under through 15 holes.

Of course for Koepka, it’s about much, much more than one fall PGA Tour event, even one he has a particular fondness for like the Houston Open. This is a four time Major winner who has not finished higher than 38th this fall (albeit in only three tournaments). Koepka is chasing something larger as his driving range vigil shows. He is pursuing greatness.

The Houston Open is a lot of different things for a lot of different people. For many fans — especially the bro heavy contingent — it offers the chance to party at the well showcased par 3 15th signature hole. (The spot for screaming, “Get in the hole!” with beer breath.) For iconic athletes like Peyton Manning, who held court at Truth BBQ on Washington Avenue in a private event, it is an opportunity to promote their lucrative side businesses in the tournament’s shadow. (In Manning’s case, the Sweetens Cove Tennessee whiskey brand he’s involved with). For golf nut kids, it’s a chance to see some of their heroes up close. For local business executives, it’s the chance to host clients in some of Houston Open’s numerous hospitality areas.

But for Brooks Koepka, it is a serious business trip. Koepka will either get better or worse this week — and his work on the range shows he’s determined to make it be the former.

Brooks Koepka, Work and Memorial Park Power

Koepka clearly shows up at the range upset and frustrated. He tosses a water bottle to the ground. At one point, he remarks, “It has to feel uncomfortable to get in the right spot,” as he twists his hip different ways on his back swing.

But when his work is done, and he walks off, he could not be more gracious with the half dozen fans who waited out the long range session for autographs. Koepka signs for everybody, poses for a picture with a teen, making sure the dad gets the shot and stops for another photo with a group of guys. Brooks Koepka is known for his white hot intensity, but he could not be nicer to these Houston fans.

Brooks Koepka took the time to shake the hand of a volunteer. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

In many ways, Koepka is something of a Houston Open ambassador. He helped Tom Doak redesign Memorial Park as part of Houston Astros owner and Houston golf savior Jim Crane’s vision. And it is clear Koepka appreciates Crane’s devotion to making this PGA Tour stop much more impressive than the usual fall tournament. Plenty of extra player perks included. From the haircut station Ian Poulter takes advantage of (and Instagrams about) on tournament’s eve to the complimentary massages and physical therapy available for the Tour players.

“Why can’t every week be like this?” Poulter asks.

“It’s definitely different,” Koepka tells PaperCity. “It’s one of the better ones in fall for sure. You see a lot of different events, but this is definitely a little different class than the rest of the fall series. (Crane’s) always been really good to me too.

“It’s just special.”

That might even include Memorial Park’s drainage system. While spectators had to dodge some muddy areas outside the fairways, the course itself more than stood up to all the morning water. Just another way in which Houston’s jewel of a municipal course — one that Crane hopes to bring a U.S. Open or PGA Championship to one day — continues to impress.

“I mean it was unbelievable,” Leishman says. “I don’t know what they did underneath this place, but on the playing areas — in the fairways, the greens and the tees — it was dry. You could tell it had rained obviously. But whoever designed the drainage here, they did a great job.”

Koepka also came away largely impressed. Not with this own game. But with the course itself.

“It did pretty good,” he says when I ask about the course in the wake of the rain. “It was coming down pretty solid. They kind of lost the fringes a little bit, but other than that, the course is in great shape.”

With that, Brooks Koepka jumps into his black luxury courtesy SUV. He’s leaving the course, but only after putting in the work. Practice swing after practice swing.

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