Keeping Score

Koepka and Yanks put streak on line

As we prepare for the 147th British Open, the granddaddy of all majors – starting date, 1860 – can we pause for a moment to discuss respect? As in, when will American Brooks Koepka begin to receive his fair share? 

What is it that we need to see from him? If he lands a Claret Jug this week, will that make golf fans notice how well he has been playing on golf’s biggest stages? 

Koepka, 28, is an interesting study. The man missed three months with a wrist injury to start 2018 and returned as if he’d missed three days (“It’s the same game I’ve been playing for 24 years,” he said with a shrug.) And in winning the U.S. Open in back-to-back years – on completely different courses, in completely different scoring conditions – Koepka accomplished something that hadn’t been done since Curtis Strange won consecutive U.S. Opens in 1988-89. 

Koepka hasn’t built himself into only a U.S. Open threat but a threat for all majors. The overall record that he is constructing is terrific. In his past 10 major-championship starts, dating to the Open at St. Andrews in 2015, Koepka has won twice and finished outside the top 13 only one time, that being a tie for 21st in the 2016 Masters. (That’s right: a tie for 21st has been his worst showing.) 

Sure, golf has lots of intriguing storylines these days. Tiger Woods is back and gunning for that 15th major. Justin Thomas has emerged in a big way, walking shoulder to shoulder with his old junior pal, Jordan Spieth. When will Rory McIlroy find his form? And don’t forget Dustin Johnson, the long-bombing No. 1. He owns one major; it feels as if he should have four or five.

Koepka? He gets lost off the frame of the picture, which seems perfectly fine with him. Though he was there to defend his national title, he garnered little attention in the days leading up to Shinnecock Hills. Here we are again, another major ... and will anyone even take a second look? Many British betting shops have him at 20-1 or higher to win.  

They should reconsider, and here’s why: Koepka has the perfect mentality for the majors. If it gets tough, he doesn’t get rattled. (Through 25 holes at Shinnecock, he stood 7 over par.) His veins are filled with cool confidence. It’s no surprise that he hangs out a lot with Johnson down in Jupiter, Fla. If you think Johnson is a low-key flatliner, then get to know Koepka. Asked where he'd left the U.S. Open trophy when he arrived at Hartford for the Travelers Championship last month, he pondered for a moment and couldn’t remember. On the kitchen counter, maybe? 

Koepka will be competing in his fifth British Open, having tied for 10th at St. Andrews (2015) and sixth last summer at Royal Birkdale. (He missed Troon in 2016 due to injury.) 

Don’t forget, this man cut his professional teeth on the European Tour. It gave him the perfect opportunity to mature as a young player. When you’re in your early 20s and traveling the globe, often alone, doing your best to figure out different languages and currencies, you grow up fast.

Ranked fourth in the world, Koepka needs to start winning more. He'd tell you as much. Outside of his two U.S. Open trophies, he has but one other PGA Tour victory, the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open. But he has won in Japan (twice) and in Turkey. And nobody should be surprised if he plays his way into the mix on a firm, fiery track at Carnoustie this week, where he can pound long irons off the tee that will run forever (tee times)

Koepka’s two U.S. Open victories are bookends to another somewhat overlooked story in golf these days: Americans have been dominant in the big events. Between Koepka’s holding up those beautiful U.S. Open trophies in Wisconsin and on Long Island, Spieth captured a British Open at Birkdale, Thomas broke through at the PGA (Quail Hollow), and Patrick Reed slipped a green jacket over his shoulders. 

That’s five in a row, for those counting. You’d have to trace back to 1981-82 (six consecutive, beginning with Bill Rogers at Royal St. George’s) to a U.S. major streak any longer. 

Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka, winner of consecutive U.S. Opens, is a big reason why Americans have won 5 straight major championships entering this week’s British Open at Carnoustie.

Brooks Koepka, winner of consecutive U.S. Opens, is a big reason why Americans have won 5 straight major championships entering this week’s British Open at Carnoustie.

That also was roughly the era during which the U.S. again became a force at the Open. Arnold Palmer was convinced that to be considered a great golfer, he had to win around the world. He played the Old Course at St. Andrews in 1960 and finished second to Australian Kel Nagle, then won the next two (at Royal Birkdale and Royal Troon, respectively). Before 1980, Nicklaus, Tony Lema, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller all would own jugs.

Did you know that in 1959, the year before Palmer ventured to St. Andrews, only three lesser-known U.S. players even teed it up at Muirfield, and not a single one of them made the cut? 

Think about that. No Americans on the weekend at the British Open. Palmer sparked an American resurgence. Since the turn of this century, Americans have won titles at eight of the nine courses in the modern-day Open rota. The exception? Carnoustie. Watson was the last American to win there, in 1975. Tiger Woods was born later that year, and he’s 42. (Woods has tied for 12th and seventh in his two Opens played at Carnoustie.)

Tommy Armour, Ben Hogan, Tom Watson. Those are your three American champions at Carnoustie, where the Open has been staged seven times. Will the U.S. keep its major streak going this week? Along the dusty brown fairways, they’ll talk about Johnson and Spieth, Thomas and Woods, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson. 

Do not forget about Koepka.

“I mean, I always feel like I’m overlooked,” he said on that Sunday night at Shinnecock with the U.S. Open trophy next to him again. “It doesn’t bug me.”

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62

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