Keeping Score

Koepka proves to be a hit in big games

ST. LOUIS – If you want Brooks Koepka to do something – really want him to do it – just tell him that he can’t. His coach figured that out on Tuesday during the 2017 U.S. Open week at the Erin Hills driving range, two days before play began. Pete Cowen pulled Koepka aside, sat him down and looked him straight in the eye.

“You don’t have a chance,” he said. Cowen went on to tell his promising pupil that his game wasn’t ready, his head couldn’t handle it and his backbone lacked the structural integrity that it took to win any another golf tournament, much less a major championship. In short, Cowen called out Koepka. And it worked like a charm.

“I think that's the sign of a great coach,” Koepka said. “They know exactly what motivates you, what gets you going… He knew which buttons to push that week, and he did a good job of pushing them.”

Koepka wasted no time feeding Cowen his words. He overpowered an exposed Erin Hills, never flinched under pressure and finished 16 under to win, tying Rory McIlroy’s record (2011, Congressional) for lowest score in relation to par. 

A year later, after missing four months, including the Masters, with an injured left wrist, Koepka returned to a U.S. Open venue with a track record. Shinnecock Hills is a USGA go-to golf course with a harsh reputation, a place where accidents don’t happen, where aspirations go to die. This time, Koepka didn’t need a coach to raise the stakes; he had a golf media and the general public.

Since Ben Hogan in 1950-51, only one player had won back-to-back U.S. Opens: Curtis Strange, in 1988-89. No one figured Koepka for it. Many saw the victory in Wisconsin – only his second PGA Tour title – as an irregularity, a vulnerable environment victimized by a driver-pounding predator. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, at the great equalizer on Long Island, fuhgeddaboudit! 

The kid’s a muscle-head, a linebacker in Nike clothing. He can’t think his way around a real U.S. Open course. He can’t make the shots, take the punches and keep grinding. Not there, not at Shinnecock, for God’s sake. 

“I think a lot of people thought [2017] was just a one-off,” Koepka said. “I didn't. I don't think anybody in my team did. I've got high expectations. I knew what level I want to get to, and people were complaining about the golf course at Erin Hills, and I can only … play what they give us.

“I mean, I can't do anything that the wind didn't blow. Finished off 16 under, whatever I shot was the winning score. I mean, what am I supposed to do? I mean, there were great players that week that missed the cut: D.J. [Dustin Johnson], Rory. They missed the cut.”

Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant. Sufficiently motived by the level of disbelief, Koepka did it again last June. He entered the final round in a four-way tie, shook down Shinnecock for a 2-under 68 and made history with a second consecutive U.S. Open. 

“Any time anybody tells me I can't do something, I just can't wait to prove you wrong,” Koepka said. 

As the PGA unfolded this week at Bellerive Country Club, Koepka, 28, was in a familiar position: looming in the background. He got some attention, sure. But for a guy who has won two of the past five major championships in which he has started, a guy who has two top-5s in his past three PGAs, he was not an A-lister. And when he opened with a 70 on Thursday, there was no reason for an upgrade. 

Wait a minute. Is that a little doubt creeping in? That’s all Koepka needs. 

Playing in the city where his great-uncle Dick Groat won a World Series with the 1964 Cardinals, Koepka slapped a competitive course-record-tying 63 up the middle on Friday, scaling the Bellerive leaderboard. He stood alone in third place at 8-under 132, two strokes behind leader Gary Woodland and one back of Kevin Kisner before thunderstorms suspended the second round (scores)

A National League MVP with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, Groat played three seasons in St. Louis (1963-65). At age 87, he still co-owns and helps operate Champion Lakes Golf Resort in Bolivar, Pa. On a wall in the clubhouse is a framed photo of Groat and ’64 Cardinals teammates Curt Simmons and Bob Skinner, taken the following summer. They are walking the grounds at Bellerive Country Club, alongside Arnold Palmer, at the 1965 U.S. Open.

Groat didn’t hit any fairways that day, walking with “The King.” On Friday, his great-nephew hardly missed one. He hit 12 of 14, and 14 of 18 greens. He averaged 312 yards with the big stick and needed only 25 putts to make seven birdies without a box. 

“I like the way the golf course sets up,” Koepka said. “People talk about it turns right to left, but you've always got a bunker on the inside of the turn. I can carry most of them, so it's not really a big deal that the holes turn right-to-left. You can kind of get away with it with my length.”

Throughout history, players have won two or more majors in a season 32 times. Most recently, it happened in 2015, when Jordan Spieth won the Masters and U.S. Open back-to-back. The last to combine a U.S. Open with a PGA was Tiger Woods, in 2000, when he also won the British Open. He added the 2001 Masters for four in a row, known as the Tiger Slam. Koepka missed Augusta this year, but he’s trying to make up for lost opportunities. 

“It would be special,” Koepka said. “Any time you can win two majors in a year, that's pretty unique, pretty special. And especially where I started the season. Missing the Masters and only being able to play three this year is quite disappointing, but trying to make the most of it.”

And if you don’t think he can do it, you should bet on it.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD


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