ERIN, Wis. – Brooks Koepka, the flatliner whose caddie never witnessed him make a fist pump until the 2016 Ryder Cup, buried his face in his hands Sunday evening as he was whisked from the 18th green to sign his scorecard and make it official that he was the 2017 U.S. Open champion.
"That's when it hit me what I'd done," said Koepka, who said that was the most emotion he's ever shown down the stretch of a tournament – not that anyone could tell. ("I think he even smiled," cracked caddie Ricky Elliott.)
On a blustery final round at Erin Hills, Koepka, 27, poured in three birdies in a row beginning at the 14th hole to shoot 67 and win his first major championship, by four strokes over Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama.
At the first U.S. Open since 1991 without Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods, Koepka became the seventh consecutive first-time major winner. The leaderboard was stacked with 20-somethings – Rickie Fowler, Matsuyama and Justin Thomas, to name a few – looking for their breakthrough major. As two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange so eloquently put it, "You can't describe the magnitude of the difference between the first three rounds and Sunday. You don't sleep the night before. You can't spit. Your mind is racing. These kids have no idea."
So perhaps it was only fitting that Koepka, who describes himself as pretty chill and oozes confidence, hoisted the silver trophy. In 2015, when he won his first PGA Tour title, Koepka channeled his inner Patrick Reed, and said something rarely heard from a young pro: “I think I'm one of the most mentally strong people that I have ever met.”
Koepka conceded this week that his hands were shaking so much at the first tee of the Ryder Cup that he worried if his ball had fallen off the tee whether he'd be able to re-tee. His only concern at Erin Hills was about belting driver on the third hole into the bunker, some 350 yards away.
"Other than that, it's bombs away," Koepka said.
He took advantage of his length as never before. His instructor, Claude Harmon III, said Koepka had been mashing his driver every bit as well as World No. 1 Dustin Johnson had a year before in winning the Open at Oakmont. The fairways at Erin Hills were the size of airport runways compared with the typical U.S. Open layout, where players practically have to walk single file.
Koepka, who entered the week ranked 173rd in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour, hit 87.5 percent of fairways and 86 percent of the greens in regulation. He hit a club longer than a 7-iron on only one approach shot all week, a 5-iron at the fourth hole Sunday.
"This is the new age of golf," Steve Stricker said. "They bomb it. If they hit it crooked, they bomb it again. They've got no fear."
Koepka vaulted into the lead with birdies at his first two holes and tacked on another at the eighth as he battled with Harman for the lead. Koepka's lone hiccup of the day was a 3-putt at the 10th, but his putter didn't let him down as he made clutch par saves at Nos. 12 and 13. When Harman made bogeys at Nos. 12 and 13, Koepka, playing one group ahead, took a commanding lead with his back-nine birdie binge. Koepka tied the U.S. Open 72-hole scoring record, set by Rory McIlroy in 2011, with an aggregate of 16-under 272.
It capped a journey to major-championship winner that included an unconventional route to the PGA Tour. The Florida State product ventured overseas and competed on the European Tour's Challenge Tour, a developmental circuit. There were times when he slept in his car, including in Kazakhstan, and bunked four men to a room in bargain-rate bed-and-breakfasts. He won three times to earn his promotion, and added victories in Turkey and his only other PGA Tour title, at the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, where the first tee starter called him Brooks Cupcake when introducing him at the start of the final round. Yet for all his success at a relatively young age, which included earning his way onto the victorious 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup team, Koepka considered himself an underachiever.
"I just felt like I should be winning more," he said.
His peers on both sides of the Atlantic knew that it was a matter of when, not if, for Koepka to realize his potential. Elliott first caddied for Koepka at the 2013 PGA Championship as a tryout, and he knew he'd found someone special.
"After two shots on the range, I said, 'This guy is going to be good,' and I've just been hanging on to him ever since," Elliott said.
Koepka's roommate at the time, Peter Uihlein, recommended that Koepka spend time with Harmon III and his father, Butch, in 2012.
"He didn't have a plan or any direction," Harmon III said. "He had speed, and that's the one thing you can't teach."
Now, Koepka has a better understanding of his talent and how to harness his athletic abilities. Could this be the first step to a Hall of Fame career for Koepka? Considering he labeled himself an underachiever, he must have some pretty lofty goals.
"They're pretty high," he said. "I think I can win multiple times a year, I really do. And I think this is hopefully major No. 1, and there's many more to come."
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak