ERIN, Wis. – Brooks Koepka wasn’t the only winner Sunday in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, even though that’s what the scoreboard says.
A runner-up finish after five birdies on the final nine vaulted Hideki Matsuyama to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, cementing his arc to becoming Japan’s greatest golfer – if he’s not already there.
Brian Harman, the 54-hole leader, tied Matsuyama for second and proved that he’s got the game and the guts to play with the big hitters. Oh, yeah, he’ll be back.
Tommy Fleetwood, the 26-year-old Englishman whose long locks and scruffy facial hair make him look like the coolest caddie at the club, stamped his ticket as a rising star by finishing fourth, thus earning a return Open exemption plus a spot in next year’s Masters.
Justin Thomas posted an historic third-round 63 that went to waste – he tied for ninth – but that round reminded us why he’s got three victories this season, why he’s going to win major championships and why he’s going to challenge for the No. 1 world ranking sooner rather than later.
Harman was the biggest winner among the also-rans. He came up short with back-to-back bogeys at 12 and 13, but the 30-year-old former junior-golf superstar is turning into a late-blooming PGA Tour star. This effort, coming a month after his Wells Fargo Championship victory in Wilmington, N.C., raised his name-recognition factor beyond measure.
“If you told me I was going to shoot 12 under at the U.S. Open and not win, I would have taken the bet, for sure,” said Harman, a Georgia native from Savannah. “You’ve got to tip your cap to Brooks. He went and won the tournament on the back nine. I’ve done it before, but he did it today.”
After those two bogeys, Harman stuck it in close at 14 for a clutch birdie, had a good birdie look at 15 that he missed and then birdied 16. Koepka, however, was busy making three birdies in a row to ice the title.
“I kind of thought that might propel me on,” Harman said. “Without the craziness going on in front of me (Koepka), those would’ve been my heroics on the day.”
Harman and Fleetwood hung tough despite their relative major-championship inexperience. Harman had missed the cut in his two previous Opens. Fleetwood finished 27th in his only other Open, two years ago.
“I’ve never contended for a major before, so when you get to Saturday and Sunday, you want to see how you react,” said Fleetwood, a two-time European Tour winner from Southport, home to Royal Birkdale, next month’s British Open host. “I played great yesterday. I scrapped a little bit today, but I felt fine. The next time I play well enough to contend, whenever it comes, I’ll know I’ll be fine. Whether I play well or not, that’s a different story.”
Thomas, 24, the former University of Alabama star from Goshen, Ky., saw his momentum end quickly early Sunday with bogeys at the second, fourth and fifth holes.
“I hit such a good putt on 2, I don’t know how it didn’t go in,” Thomas said. “And then 4, my ball completely stopped 3 inches from the hole and then rolled back 4½ feet. That was a pretty big turn. It went from a good save and a tap-in par to me going 2 over par through four and really behind the eight-ball, pretty much because of a bad pin.”
The best thing Koepka did was put the contenders away with his closing 67, the final round’s second-best score, next to Matsuyama’s 66, and tie Rory McIlroy’s 16-under total as the lowest in U.S. Open history. Nobody else walked away from Erin Hills thinking he should have won.
“It stings any time you don’t win,” Thomas said. “If 12 or 13 under would have won, it would have hurt really bad. I would have had to shoot 5 under just to get in a playoff – that’s really good golfing. To be honest, it sucks to not even have a chance on that back nine.”
Experience was gained, and lessons were learned. The British Open looms on the horizon.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle