Keeping Score

It’s Koepka, and then race for 2nd at PGA

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Saturday was another fun day at the PGA Championship.

How fun? Well…

Tiger Woods wasn’t here. He missed the cut.

Phil Mickelson was here … but made nine bogeys.

After three rounds, no challenger has caught Brooks Koepka’s opening-round score of 7 under par, although Luke List and Dustin Johnson briefly touched those lofty heights Saturday before falling back to Earth.

Suspense and drama fell off the endangered-species list and right into extinction, by order of Koepka. After two record-setting days, Koepka brought a seven-shot lead into the third round. He shot an even-par 70 and left with that same seven-shot lead (scores).

The highlights were far fewer than the first two days. Birdies and eagles were badly outnumbered by bogeys, doubles and unmentionables. In the wake of a 63 and two 64s, Saturday’s low scores were 3-under 67s posted by Harold Varner III and Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond, who are seven back along with List and Johnson.

The third-round W goes to Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, as tougher pins and a breeze from a different direction stiffened the challenge.

Johnson survived the gantlet, making six birdies to salvage a 1-under 69. Kelly Kraft, whose second-round 65 earned a pairing with Johnson, was less fortunate. His lone birdie couldn’t cover his 78.

Fun and Bethpage Black? Upon further review, Saturday was a reminder that those words usually don’t go together in the same sentence. Koepka is having a great time, and why not? He’s running away with this thing. The engraver surely has “Koepka” already etched onto the Wanamaker Trophy.

For every other competitor, this week hasn’t exactly been comedy hour.

“I don’t know if the tournament is just less fun because I’m 15 shots back or what,” said Xander Schauffele, who actually was 10 shots behind, in a tie for eighth. “It’s very melancholic because every time I look up, I’m 10 to 12 back. No one likes to play for second, but that’s what he’s doing to us. Everyone is here to win, but there’s one guy absolutely destroying this place. I’m sure he’s having a blast. But he’s making it awfully boring for the rest of us.”

Golf Channel analyst David Duval pointed out on the air that what Koepka is doing wasn’t considered boring when Tiger Woods posted similar results.

“It’s majestic,” said Duval, a former world No. 1 and a major champion himself. “Enjoy it. Appreciate the excellence. He’s not Tiger Woods, but he’s playing golf like him. [Koepka] said 10 majors is a realistic goal. I believe him.”

Today figures to be a replay of Saturday. The only real game in town is watching Koepka versus Bethpage Black. That’s inside-golf stuff, what those viewers who truly love watching players hit balls with sticks can appreciate. Koepka versus Bethpage Black is sort of like a chess match, if a chess match featured shifting winds, thick rough and pieces that moved at 185 mph when pummeled by the hands of Koepka.

Asked if he had any doubt that he would win, Koepka answered, “No. I feel confident. I feel good. I feel excited.”

Of course, the Titanic was unsinkable, and Thomas Dewey had Harry Truman beaten at the ballot box. Those historical lessons don’t seem to apply here.

Is Koepka really catchable on this course? Johnson, one of Koepka’s best friends and a frequent workout partner, wants to believe that he is.

Amanda Balionis of CBS asked that question before Saturday’s broadcast went off the air. Johnson began his answer in a dead-serious tone. “It’s going to take something special to catch Brooks, but it’s definitely doable if you shoot 5, 6, 7 under par and he shoots a couple over.”

When he got to the part about shooting 6 or 7 under, though, Johnson smiled and tried to stifle a giggle. Six or 7 under wasn’t out there on the Black Course in the third round, and he knows it.

Plus, there are two other notable variables. Koepka’s closest competitors, other than No. 1-ranked Johnson, are not the top names in the Official World Golf Ranking. Varner, Janewattananond and List have no experience in contention during the final nine of a major. For every Hideki Matsuyama, Adam Scott, Schauffele and Jordan Spieth closing up the ranks, there is a Matthew Wallace, Erik Van Rooyen and Sung Kang.

The other wild card is Koepka’s skill as a big-game hunter. Koepka, 29, has a proven track record. He’s done this before, and on the toughest courses: Shinnecock Hills, at the 2018 U.S. Open. And he’s done it against the toughest challengers: Woods, at last summer’s PGA Championship at Bellerive.

“It’s awesome; it’s so good,” said Rory McIlroy, who trails Koepka by 14 shots. “He is definitely playing on a different level than most anyone else. It’s great to watch.”

Koepka won’t go out to make history today. He’ll go out to take care of business, shot by shot, on a course that he knows is dangerous. And it’s a course that he has played far better than anyone else.

“I’m definitely not going to let up; I promise you that,” Koepka said. “I’m just trying to hit the best possible shot I can at the time. When I’m over the shot, I’m very confident.”

He considered his ball-striking was better Saturday than it was Friday, but his score suffered slightly because he left a few putts short. He also missed a few more fairways, which made scoring more difficult.

Today will be just another day of work for him, just another round of golf. His goal is to keep extending his lead. He joked that he’d love to be able to make a 10 on the final hole and still win.

“Everybody keeps asking what I’m doing differently,” Koepka said. “I’m just that much more focused. I think I’m more focused than anybody out here. I’m tunnel-visioned. My focus goes up tenfold of a regular Tour event. I’m not the best at the birdie-fest. These are my kind of golf courses, where it’s very stressful to play. I enjoy that. That’s what I live for. I don’t need a sports psychologist. I’m pretty good at it. It’s just focus, grind it out, suck it up and move on.”

Koepka is about to knock off another historic milestone. No player has ever successfully defended two major titles concurrently. This would make two PGA Championships in a row, and four titles in his past eight major championships. Next month, he’ll go for a three-peat at the U.S. Open.

Koepka is the reason why club professional Rob Labritz, from GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills, N.Y., is happy he’s a PGA professional and doesn’t have to face Koepka on a regular basis on the PGA Tour.

“Brooks is playing ridiculous golf,” said Labritz, one of three club pros who impressively made the cut. “He’s the man right now. I don’t know him. Never met him. But he’s the man.”

Today, that should become official.

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


Related Stories
|