News & Opinion

In a Strange way, Koepka shares Open lore

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Friday morning probably was the last time Curtis Strange will hear the question, the one he proudly has fielded for nearly three decades as the last man to win back-to-back United States Opens.

“Sure, somebody will do it again,” Strange said casually while chatting with Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal writer John Dell on the grounds here at Shinnecock Hills. After a pause, Strange, who was working as an on-course reporter for Fox Sports, delivered his usual punchline. “Someday,” he added with a knowing smile that really meant, Maybe.

There was no thought then that it was going to happen this week, certainly not with a cool, brisk wind and petulant rain that went from mist to drizzle to showers and back again before finally disappearing like a scolded child. 

In the golden glow of the early evening sun just below the stately Shinnecock Hills clubhouse, Dell said, “We certainly weren’t thinking Brooks Koepka was going to do it.”

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Brooks Koepka repeats as U.S. Open champion, a feat that had not been done since Fox Sports’ Curtis Strange won titles in 1988-89.

© GOLFFILE/BRIAN SPURLOCK
Brooks Koepka repeats as U.S. Open champion, a feat that had not been done since Fox Sports’ Curtis Strange won titles in 1988-89.

Then, Koepka was struggling with the mysteries that Shinnecock Hills presented as America’s closest thing to a British links. He slipped to 7 over par early in the second round, but his caddie, Ricky Elliott, kept him upbeat. “Get it going. We’re not out of this thing,” Koepka said Elliott told him. “He was right. He’s an incredible caddie.”

Now we know what we didn’t know last year when Koepka broke out and won the U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin. Koepka, the husky golfer with the guns for biceps and an NFL strong-safety build, is for real. His skills were overshadowed by the controversy around first-time Open site Erin Hills, whose wide fairways yielded unusually good scores after the course was softened by rain, and the knowledge that it was a bomber’s track that set up for a big hitter such as Koepka and maybe therefore didn’t identify the true champion golfer of the year.

One Open title could be a fluke. A second one, especially one at vaunted Shinnecock Hills, is not (scores). We have seriously underrated Koepka, 28, a Florida State alumnus who, once he decided that a life in golf was what he really wanted, told his manager to send him anywhere in the world, no matter where, that would help him play his way onto the PGA Tour. 

Koepka won four times in two seasons on Europe’s Challenge Tour before winning in Turkey on the European Tour in 2014 and then in Phoenix on the PGA Tour in 2015.

Koepka is what in baseball terms would be called a five-tool player. He looks bigger than his listed 6-foot, 186-pound physique; he hits it as long as anyone in pro golf; he’s terrific around the greens with his sand wedges; and he can get hot with his putter. The latter skill is what won him his second Open.

He survived the first two days, turning that messy Friday round into a stellar 66, then posted a 72 in the third round when the greens at Shinnecock Hills got firmer and faster than the USGA intended – they were glossy by late morning – and led to an apology from USGA leader Mike Davis.

Sunday, Koepka made every putt that mattered. A four-way tie after 54 holes created a crowded leaderboard and a maddening chase. Repeated cheers up ahead were a cause for concern—that was England’s Tommy Fleetwood shooting 63, tying the all-time Open scoring record and posting at 2-over 282, before Koepka and Dustin Johnson made the turn.

The highlights can be condensed into three big putts and one big chip.

The 11th is a scary-looking uphill par 3. Koepka missed long and left, the wrong place to miss, and pitched out of the thick fescue, across the green and into a bunker. A double bogey or worse loomed large, and Koepka had a two-shot lead on the line. His bunker shot wasn’t ideal, but he poured in a 12½-foot bogey putt that hit the cup with authority and dropped. Koepka’s lead was down to one and, just as important, he stood 1 over par, still one shot ahead of Fleetwood’s low score in the clubhouse.

“That putt was pretty big,” Koepka said.

So was the 6-footer for par at 12. After an ethereal flop shot from trampled fescue left of the green, Koepka rolled it in as easily as if it were a tap-in. Did he even break a sweat? It didn’t look that way.

Then came another clutch putt, from 8 feet for par at 14. Those three holes could’ve been doubles or triples, he said. Instead, they were a bogey and two pars. All Koepka did was save three shots on three holes. He won by one over Fleetwood. Koepka needed a bogey on the 18th hole to win, and it looked dicey after he pull-hooked his approach shot so far left of the green that it hit a grandstand and caromed back onto the short grass.

A deft pitch with his sand wedge off a tight lie, a shot that would be routine anywhere else but the 72nd hole of the Open, with the trophy on the line, turned out brilliantly. Koepka had 14 feet, a slick right-to-left breaker, and he lagged it close for the tap-in bogey and the championship.

Blame the likes of the other boy wonders, such as Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, and the continuing sagas of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – and let’s throw Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson in there, too – as familiar names that we follow more closely than Koepka.

We forgot about him last year when he didn’t win again after Erin Hills. Then he tore a tendon in his left wrist, had to wear a cast and couldn’t so much as pick up anything with his left hand for a couple of months earlier this year. 

Koepka returned to the Tour in May, and in his second post-injury start, at the Players Championship, he abruptly stopped a practice swing on the range to avoid hitting an inattentive range worker. The move tweaked his left wrist, which he iced throughout the tournament, but he was able to play. His wrist was OK, and that incident, ironically, proved it.

It was back to golf then. His swing returned without missing a beat. This is why we shouldn’t overlook Koepka again.

He has the kind of confidence that most pros envy. “I don’t need to hit a lot of balls or practice every day,” he said. “I know what I’m doing. I know how to swing a club.”

Johnson is the No. 1 player in the world, but honestly, Koepka looks better. He hits it just as long – their drives were neck-and-neck all day Sunday. Johnson might be a little tighter with his irons, but Koepka looks better around the green with the wedges and is significantly superior with his putter.

“You can make up so much ground with a hot putter,” Koepka said. “It all started with that great bogey putt on 11, when I would’ve taken a double because I was in jail over there.”

It seems so obvious now. Koepka was dominating. He ranked second in driving distance, fourth in greens hit in regulation and birdies and seventh in putting. It is no wonder that his name is on the trophy again, and surely will be etched onto others soon.

“I looked at all those names on there a million times in the last year, it seemed like,” Koepka said. “To have my name on there, and have it back-to-back, is special. I’m really honored.”

He did something that has been done only two other times in the past 67 years. When Strange captured the National Open for a second straight time, at Oak Hill in 1989, he paid homage to the legendary Ben Hogan, the previous Open champ to go back-to-back, in 1950 and ’51 – a fact that Strange didn’t know until he read it in a newspaper (ask your parents what those were, kids) Saturday morning before the third round. When he won, Strange said, “Move over, Ben,” a sound bite that lives to this day.

In an unusual twist, Strange walked with Koepka and Johnson in the final round for Fox. As Koepka came off the 18th green, fairly certain of victory, he did bro-shakes (or whatever those upright handshakes are called) with the caddies and a quick hug with his good friend, Johnson.

There, just off the green, Strange was waiting for him – the right man in the right place at the right time in golf history.

Move over, Curtis? Not a chance. Strange gave Koepka an embrace and a few private words.

And so, the torch was passed, man to man, generation to generation, as it should be.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle