Brooks Koepka pulled off a Tiger-esque Major victory at Bethpage Black, which is prompting questions about who exactly can stop, writes GARY LEMKE.
After three rounds, the runaway leader looked at the scoreboard which reflected his dominance. It was history-making stuff, with only 18 holes remaining, and as close as golf gets to the final Sunday ride into Paris for the Tour de France’s yellow jersey wearer.
‘When I was younger, playing on municipal courses here in the US, I’d usually visualise playing against Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan, and it was usually neck and neck. I never had a lead like this even in fantasy golf. If I play the way I know I can, somebody’s going to have to shoot a really good number,’ the American said.
Even Ernie Els was moved to say, ‘It would be wonderful for golf if someone could step up and play with him. It’s very difficult to do. He’s a great player.’
We need to be reminded that this was all about Tiger Woods at the 2000 US Open, where victory at Pebble Beach gave him his third Major title – and he has subsequently added another dozen to that list.
However, it could easily have applied to Brooks Koepka, who was winning for the fourth time in his last eight Majors when he claimed a back-to-back PGA Championship title. That goes with his two US Opens, and he also has two other top-10s, at The Open Championship and The Masters, for good measure.
In winning by ‘a mere’ two shots at a tough Bethpage State Park, the 29-year-old joined Nicklaus, Woods and Seve Ballesteros as the only players to win
twice at two different Majors before the age of 30. That’s one smokin’ fourball Koepka has joined. He is also the 11th player to win four Majors by that age –
and he has the chance to add to the tally before his next birthday, through the 2019 US Open, The Open and the 2020 Masters.
He also became the first player since Woods in 2006-07 to win back-to-back PGA Championships. The last person to win four of eight Majors was Woods in 2006-07. Can you see why the aficionados are beginning to draw comparisons?
Koepka, who won the 2018 US Open and PGA Championship to earn him PGA Tour Player of the Year honours, had opened at Bethpage with a 63, which saw him become the first player to shoot that number in consecutive PGA Championships. It gave him a one-shot lead going into the second round. ‘That was one of the best rounds I’ve probably played as a professional,’ Koepka said. ‘This golf course is brutal. You can’t miss. You can’t take a shot off, and that’s what I love.’
He’d stretched his lead to seven shots after a second-round 65, which meant he had fired the lowest 36-hole total score (128) in the 159-year history of professional Major championship golf.
On 12 under, Koepka also held the biggest advantage at the halfway point of a PGA Championship. And how did he feel?
‘I didn’t hit the ball very well today.’
A third-round 70 kept his seven-shot lead intact and was the record after 54 holes of the tournament. No golfer in Major history had failed to win after holding such a margin. ‘I couldn’t care less about breaking records,’ he said. ‘If they come, that’s awesome but I’m just trying to win. I feel confident and I feel good. I’ll approach tomorrow like any other day on the golf course. Hit the ball on the fairway, hit it on the green, make the birdie putt. It’s simpler than guys think. Guys make the mistake of trying to figure out, when they get to a Major, what’s going on, what’s different. It’s just focus. It’s grind it out, suck it up and move on. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes; it’s a Major championship. You know that’s going to happen, and guys have a hard time letting that go.’
There you have it from the man himself: golf is a simple game.
Yet, Sunday wasn’t quite the gentle final-day ride into Paris that a Tour de France winner is accustomed to, glass of champagne in the hand as he rides down the Champs-Elysees. Nor was it a carbon-copy of when Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots, or the 2000 US Open by 15. But, the four-over 74 was enough to get the job done, even while world No 1 (replaced by Koepka after the event) and best buddy Dustin Johnson was doing all he could to turn the expected procession into a nail-biter.
Effectively, if the tournament wasn’t all over as a contest by 36 holes, it certainly was by 54, no matter what transpired in the final 18. History told us that. Despite a bogey at the opening hole of his final round, Koepka reached the turn at level par. ‘DJ’, playing in the pairing ahead of him, was out in three-under 32, which left Koepka with a four-shot lead down the home nine on a Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of New York.
That lead was back to six shots with eight holes to play, before the wheelnuts began to loosen. Bogeys at Nos 11, 12 and 13 were followed by another bogey, a four on the shortest hole on the course, the 149-yard 14th.
Playing partner Harold Varner III hit an 8-iron that the strong winds grabbed hold of, but Koepka said the wind never affected his ball, which flew well over the green. That’s when the crowd started to chant: ‘D-J! D-J! D-J!’
‘When they started chanting, “DJ”, it actually kind of helped,’ the champion said later. ‘I think that was the best thing that could have happened. It was at a perfect time because I was just thinking, OK, all right. I’ve got everybody against me. Let’s go. It’s New York. I’ve been to sporting events in New York. I know how
it goes. What do you expect when you’re half choking it away? If you’re going to rattle off four bogeys in a row it looks like you’re going to lose it.
‘I think it helped me refocus and hit a good one down 15,’ Koepka said. ‘I think it was probably the best thing that could have happened. It was very, very stressful, the last hour and a half of that round.’
Johnson dropped two shots in the last three holes to effectively put a line through any stories being penned about a spectacular Major meltdown.
Admitting that things had become a bit more tense than they appeared over the previous 54 holes, Koepka’s swing instructor Claude Harmon III said, ‘He learned a lot about himself. He’ll get a lot more out of this than if he had won by 15.’
So, in winning his fourth Major, Koepka ground out the victory and took one back, to the comments of his playing partner on the previous day, Adam Scott. When asked to compare Koepka’s dominance with that of Woods in his heydey, the Australian former world No 1 said: ‘It’s not quite the same, and that’s no disrespect to Brooks. I think comparing anything to Tiger, in a good or a bad way, is a little unfair. It would probably be bringing down what Tiger managed to accomplish. He did this multiple times in Majors, let alone regular PGA Tour tournaments.’
That doesn’t render Koepka’s recent achievements any less impressive – and his increasing fan base will point to the fact that Koepka and Woods were paired together for the opening 36 holes at Bethpage State Park’s notoriously tough Black Course and the youngster outscored him by 17 strokes.
The manner in which Koepka continues physically dismantling golf courses, ‘bombing’ his drives off the tee such that the ball appears to be taking photographs of the ‘fairway hazards’ as it soars over those placed in the way for mere mortals, reminds one how Woods himself over-powered the opposition, and courses,
some two decades ago.
‘Even his misses go 330 yards,’ Woods, this year’s Masters champion who missed the cut at Bethpage Park by one shot, smiled.
‘He’s just really in control,’ said four-time Major champion and the misfiring former world No 1 Rory McIlroy. ‘He’s got the ball under control with all aspects of his game, and I think more important than that is his mind is where it needs to be.’
Koepka has often been criticised for not having the charisma to ignite a whole new band of followers. Golf.com columnist Alan Shipnuck wrote a year ago: ‘Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler connect with fans because they’re carefree bros having a blast while jet-setting around the world playing a game for a living. Koepka will never be that guy. He doesn’t even identify as a golfer, instead preferring to call himself an athlete. He loves to say golf is boring, that he never watches it and that he’s not a “golf nerd”. But for the players who love the game, and the fans and reporters who find it thrilling to watch – the nerds – how are we supposed to warm to him? The golf world is treating Koepka exactly the way he has reacted to all his Major championship wins: with scant emotion.’
Except, there was plenty of emotion as Koepka digested what he’d done at Bethpage State Park. He seemed especially aggrieved at the observations of Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee leading up to the event. In a podcast, Chamblee said that only Johnson and McIlroy could challenge Woods as best player in the world. Koepka responded with a tweet where he photoshopped a clown’s nose on to a picture of Chamblee.
The analyst had also questioned the golfer’s toughness at this year’s Masters. ‘His talent is undeniable. But I’ve heard people say this. You extrapolate from accomplishment, you infer qualities from a human being like, “He’s really tough.” Maybe he is, I don’t know. I got to say, I still need to be convinced.’
Then, after a second-round 71 at Augusta, Koepka finally responded, via the media. ‘I know some people don’t think I’m mentally tough, or tough in general, but I think I am,’ he said. ‘I think I’ve proved that with three trophies. I feel like no matter how things are going, whether they are going really well or really poorly out there, I can grind it out, especially during a Major.’
Sunday’s final round at Bethpage State Park bore out those words. Next up, the US Open at Pebble Beach. Woods might be the sentimental favourite there, but
we all know who the bookies will have at the top of their lists.
– This article appeared as the cover feature of the June issue of Compleat Golfer