Keeping Score

Koepka muscles his way into golf history

ST. LOUIS – Brooks Koepka, the 54-hole leader of the 100th PGA Championship, received some important advice from his coach, Claude Harmon III, before he went out in Sunday afternoon’s final pairing with Australian Adam Scott.

“I know you’ve got a big man-crush on Adam, but don’t take any selfies with him on the first tee,” Harmon told Koepka. “That won’t look cool, man.”

The line made the focused Koepka lighten up and laugh, as intended. There was some truth in there, too, because Scott was Koepka’s golfing idol as a teen.

Maybe the only word Koepka really heard Harmon say was “crush,” because all he did Sunday was crush drives, mostly in fairways; crush the hopes of his pursuers, including one Tiger Woods, who made eight birdies but still couldn’t catch a piece of the lead; and crush Bellerive Country Club, as well as the entire PGA field, too (scores).

Koepka shot a closing 4-under 66 and won by a mere two strokes over Woods, so how’s that crushing the field? Because while Koepka holed some crucial putts as he racked up six birdies, he left plenty on the table. He had an average putting day, missing four inside of 7 feet and another good chance from the fringe at 14. Sure, every golfer can play the what-if game, but the point is, Koepka’s winning total of 16 under par was whiskers away from being 20-something under par and blowing the minds of the St. Louis fans who turned out to see history made.

Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka walks off the 18th green Sunday at Bellerive in St. Louis as the PGA Championship winner, his 3rd career major title.

© GOLFFILE/BRIAN SPURLOCK
Brooks Koepka walks off the 18th green Sunday at Bellerive in St. Louis as the PGA Championship winner, his 3rd career major title.

They saw history, all right, just not the Tiger history for which so many had hoped. Because the 2001 WGC event here was canceled by the Sept. 11 attacks on America and Woods missed the 2008 BMW Championship here, this was the only chance in a lifetime for St. Louis folks to see golf’s version of Babe Ruth while he still is competitive. Lucky for them that they got a two-for-one legend ticket. Woods played exceptionally well, and Koepka, if you were paying attention, gave the huge galleries a peek at golf’s potential next Ruthian figure.

The stats are flying Vin Diesel-like: fast and furious. Let’s get them out of the way before the part that really matters.

Koepka has won three of the past six major championships in which he has played. (He missed the Masters with an injured left wrist.)

He joins Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as players who have won a U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same year.

His 264 total was a PGA Championship record, one better than what David Toms shot in 2001.

This victory should lock up the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year. Longer term, if he were to keep this up, earmark Koepka for a parking spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Not bad for a 28-year-old. 

He’s gone from zero to three majors like a dragster in the quarter-mile. Koepka now has as many major victories as Jordan Spieth and Payne Stewart, one more than Bubba Watson and Greg Norman and only one fewer than Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els. 

Koepka blinked a few times before answering a post-victory news conference about having the potential to be one of history’s great players. “I never thought about that,” he said. After a few more moments, he added, “To have three majors at 28 – it’s a cool feeling.”

What he did was nearly as impressive as how he did it. What makes Koepka special is that, like Woods, Justin Thomas and maybe Dustin Johnson, he can hit shots that no one else can.

He birdied Nos. 7, 8 and 9 to regain momentum after a pair of early bogeys at 4 and 5. At the ninth, he was in a fairway bunker and not looking good. No problem, as he dashed a pitching wedge shot out past the hole, spun it in close and made the birdie putt. It wasn’t as easy as he made it look.

At the par-4 10th, Koepka was in thick rough, 196 yards away, and muscled it out and over the green into the back bunker. It was a dicey lie, but all he did was nearly hole it, splashing the bunker shot out to 3 inches for a par save. All this, of course, while he held the lead and upwards of 10 players rushed in and out of contention, trying to chase him down.

The defining shot of Koepka’s career, perhaps, is the 4-iron that he hit at the par-3 16th hole. It played 248 yards. Let’s not even discuss the 4-iron going 240 yards – that’s modern golf, so get over it. But Koepka flighted it down, took a little something off it, flew it dead straight on a line and watched it hit the green dead-center and trickle to within 6½ feet of the cup. He made the putt for the birdie that ultimately clinched the title for him.

“I hit a laser right at the flag,” Koepka said. “That will probably go down as one of the best shots I’ve ever hit under pressure.”

A question: Can anyone, including Thomas and Woods, keep up with Koepka? In three of the past six majors in which he has played, the answer was, No. 

Another question: Who’s going to win all four legs of the career Grand Slam sooner: Phil Mickelson, who needs a U.S. Open; McIlroy, who needs a Masters; Spieth, who needs a PGA; or Koepka, who needs a Masters and a British Open? The smart money is on Koepka.

It was a circuitous road from Florida State University to the PGA Tour, via the European Challenge Tour. He was ready for his closeup when he got to the PGA Tour, but his U.S. Open victory last summer may have been underrated due to critical views of first-time host Erin Hills. Koepka slid off the radar during the past spring when he was sidelined with a wrist injury and missed the Masters. The down time proved to be motivational, because Koepka couldn’t wait, in his words, “to get off the couch.”

The rest is history: an Open victory at Shinnecock Hills and the 100th PGA.

“To think I would do this when I was sitting on my couch watching the Masters, I would have laughed at you and told you there was no way, no chance,” Koepka said. “This is really incredible.”

The Open and the PGA have been showcases for Koepka, who may not be as great of a putter as Woods or Spieth at their best but is pretty good with that club. There’s still room for improvement, which should be a scary thought. 

“Brooks is unbelievable in so many areas,” Harmon said. “A lot of caddies and people are saying, I didn’t know his putting was so good; I didn’t know his short game was so good; I didn’t know his bunker play was so good. That’s because his power really overshadows the rest of the game. To me, he epitomizes modern golf.”

Koepka will savor this victory, not just because it’s a major but because of whom he beat: Scott and Woods.

“I remember when I watched Adam win the [2004] Players, I was so mad when he hit it in the water [at 18],” said Koepka, who grew up in West Palm Beach. “I was rooting so hard. I loved his golf swing. As a kid growing up, Tiger was the whole reason that all of us in my generation play golf. To duel it out with them is pretty neat. I don’t think I ever dreamed of that, the situation I was in today. It really is surreal.”

It’s not surreal, just real. Maybe Koepka should’ve taken that selfie with Scott on the first tee, after all. He would’ve had a picture of the best golfer on the planet. That, too, is real. 

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


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