News & Opinion

It’s Koepka’s PGA title to lose

ST. LOUIS – A strange thing happened Saturday afternoon on Bellerive Country Club’s back nine. Brooks Koepka didn’t slam the door shut on the 100th PGA Championship.

We’ve seen Koepka grab the last two U.S. Opens and bench-press them as easily as the 225-pound weights he lifted 14 times Sunday morning before the Open’s final round at Shinnecock Hills in June. He went out after that and made winning a major championship look easy, again.

So, when Koepka, 28, an imposing 6-foot, 186-pounder, posted an effortless front-nine 30 and suddenly owned a four-stroke lead Saturday, it made perfect sense that he was about to shoot the 61 or 60 that a softened-up Bellerive had been asking for all week.

Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka

© GOLFFILE/TOM RUSSO
Brooks Koepka will look to flex his muscles in another major championship as he takes a 2-stroke lead into the final round of the PGA.

It didn’t matter that Tiger Woods and Adam Scott and Jason Day and Justin Thomas were making moves. Koepka was going to bury them all, the way he was playing.

Then reality beckoned. Major championships seldom are that easy to win unless it’s 18 years ago and your name is Woods.

The 61 didn’t happen. Koepka made a couple of mistakes coming home and instead of a lethal five- or six-stroke lead, he’s going into today’s final round with a two-shot edge over Scott, three over Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland. The six players four shots back include Woods, Day and Thomas (scores).

So, CBS still is going to have a tournament to show today, and it could be quite a race (tee times).

That said, maybe Koepka’s faltering finish was just a blip on the radar. It’s easy to fall in love with any golfer when he’s playing his best and winning tournaments. Koepka looks like he doesn’t have to possess his best stuff to beat the other guys, although he’ll need it against his star-studded list of pursuers.

The left-wrist injury that sidelined him this year and caused him to miss the Masters also led us to forget about him and underrate him. Koepka is a muscular, big athlete like Dustin Johnson, the world’s No.-1 ranked player, only with a better putting stroke, a better wedge game, better cool and an apparently stronger desire to steamroll championships.

So, it’s like this: Koepka is still the man to beat. Force me to wager all I own on one player, and he’s the easy choice. I like the way he plays aggressively and plays to his strength. He was asked why he hits driver off the first tee when many other players, including second-round leader Woodland, hit irons.

“I don’t see anything but driver there,” Koepka said matter-of-factly.

He’s driving it better – and longer – than anyone else in the field, he’s putting it better and he’s scrambling better. That’s how Woods did it back in the day. He was the best player in the field at every part of the game, and he was the best player in the game at every part of the game for more than a decade.

Koepka has yet to prove that he can maintain such a high standard, but have you watched this guy fly it 320 yards and straight on a regular basis? There’s no reason to think that he’s just on a hot streak. This looks like how he plays, period.

It must be an easy major setup when the leader shoots 198 and holds only a two-shot edge, but that’s where Koepka stands. Here’s how his challengers shape up:

Two shots back: Scott fired his second straight 65. Bellerive is right up his alley because it’s a ball-striker’s buffet, and the soft, slowish greens mean that a remedial putter such as Scott can stay in the game. He hasn’t had a top-10 finish in the past two months, but he has been hanging around in most of the recent majors, mostly due to his post-anchoring-ban putting. Scott has been giving up one or two putts a round that a tour pro should make. Over four rounds, that’s the difference in having a chance to win and finishing 17th, his result in the recent British Open.

He hasn’t been in contention for a while and said he’s glad that he got a taste of it Saturday “because I want to hold up tomorrow.”

Outlook: Scott is the best bet of the chasers, plus there’s the otherworldly factor where he has fellow Aussie Jarrod Lyle, who died Wednesday, on his mind. Lyle’s memory could be just the bit of extra heart that Scott needs.

Three shots back: Rahm, Fowler and Woodland. Rahm made a covert move with birdies on two of the last three holes and a clean, bogey-less card. He’s a raw talent without much back-nine-on-Sunday-pressure-in-a-major experience. Fowler is playing with sore ribs, yet he has seemed comfortable all week. Woodland’s bunker play got exposed, but he’s a gamer. He fought back from a bunker-to-bunker triple bogey with a pair of birdies. 

Outlook: Of the three, I’d be most worried about Fowler if I were Koepka. But the pulseless Koepka won’t be worried about anyone except Koepka.

Four shots back: Woods played probably the best round of his comeback, but he just wasn’t able to convert any putts on the final 10 holes, all pars. His showing erased any doubt about whether he’ll be a Ryder Cup player. You can book it. It’s still odd, though, that he lights up the front nines and can’t kept his foot on the pedal.

If Koepka shoots 3 under, Woods has to fire 63. Woods certainly played well enough to go that low, too, or better. I wouldn’t count him out, and the same goes for Day and Thomas, who can go low any time. Thomas shot 63 in soft conditions at Erin Hills during the 2017 U.S. Open, and he’s 8 under so far without ever really having gotten it going.

Meanwhile, Charl Schwartzel, Shane Lowry and Stewart Cink all have big victories on their resumes and can’t be ignored.

Schwartzel already posted a 63 this week.

Outlook: Anything goes, especially if Woods and Thomas catch fire on the front nine.

With 18 holes left, Koepka is in great position to win his third major championship in 14 months. Scott played a singles match against him in last year’s Presidents Cup – Scott won, 3 and 2 – and knows exactly what he is up against in Koepka.

“He’s in great form,” Scott said. “I can see he’s playing with a lot of confidence. So, I’m sure he’s going to like his position starting tomorrow.” 

Late Sunday, someone will lift the PGA’s Wanamaker Trophy. As prizes go, it’s heavy. But to the Mack Truck who’s leading this PGA, a man who won’t skip his workout before the final round, it’ll be light as a feather.

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