FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – We learned one important thing here during the past week at the 101st PGA Championship: The road to winning future major championships runs through Brooks Koepka, like it or not.
That’s not all that we learned:
* Koepka’s best golf is better than anyone else’s. A lot better, in fact, based on his 63-65 start. Sorry, Tiger. Too bad, Dustin. My apologies, Rory. But that’s the way it is.
* He’s not perfect. Yes, gusting winds absolutely raked Bethpage Black over Sunday afternoon, yet Koepka was 1 under par through 10 holes, and the PGA seemed to be over (scores). Then Johnson crept closer, Koepka repeatedly visited the kelp-farm rough and made four bogeys in a row, allowing Johnson to close to within a shot. Game on? Not quite. All Koepka did was drill perfect drives at 15 and 16, the two toughest holes on the course, make solid pars and open a three-shot cushion going to the last two holes when Johnson coughed up a pair of late bogeys.
* Koepka is tougher than a Russian miner. If he is the successor to Tiger Woods as the King of Golf this century – and he is, according to me – he showed at least one key trait that he shares with Woods, which is the ability to pull off the clutch shot or make the big putt. Koepka loves a big stage.
This makes four major championships in 23 months for Koepka. No one has ever won his first four majors in such a short span. He successfully defended titles in two majors, the PGA and U.S. Open, concurrently. No one has ever done that, either. Let’s throw in stomping Woods by 17 shots when they played together Thursday and Friday and doing to Woods what he’d done to others for years – making them and their games seem puny and lacking – and that’s a Triple Crown of It’s Never Been Done Before.
Have you noticed anything about his four major titles? None was handed to him. Koepka went out and won them all. As impressive as his play down the stretch was in each of the first three, including that birdie-fest last August when he held off Woods at Bellerive, Koepka rated this PGA Championship as his most satisfying win of the four. Not that he’ll probably change his mind after the next four in about, oh, two years from now.
“At Shinnecock, I had to grind it out, but not to this magnitude,” said Koepka, recalling his 2018 U.S. Open victory. “The conditions today – I challenge anybody to go play in these conditions. I didn’t play bad; I just didn’t hit the ball in the fairway, and you can’t play here if you do that.”
Imagine losing most of a seven-shot lead, then having to fight to win the tournament a second time.
Had Koepka waltzed to the runaway victory that we expected when he held seven-shot leads after the second and third rounds, it would have been easy to announce the start of the Brooks Koepka Era. If you understand just how tough the Black Course played Sunday in the wind, Koepka’s turnaround from a four-bogey run is more impressive than if he’d won by a dozen. He loves the challenge.
When he faced a demanding chip shot at the 14th green, following three straight bogeys, the fans began chanting for Dustin Johnson, who was two groups ahead: “D-J! D-J!” That got Koepka’s attention. “It helped me refocus and hit a good drive down 15,” he said. “It was probably the best thing that could have happened.”
© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
With one of New York’s finest clearing a path for him, Brooks Koepka makes his way to the 18th tee with a 2-stroke lead and a pending date with history.
Koepka has that “something.” Call it what you want. It’s an extra gear. He’s a competitor. He’s a winner.
As for whether Koepka drove a spike through the Tiger Woods Era, maybe it’s too early for that call. The latest Tigermania wave will roll on. At 43, Woods probably isn’t done winning, as long as his back stays glued together. Can he win more majors to go with his Masters last month?
Perhaps. But Woods will face the same obstacle to winning another major that every other top player faces: Koepka. Let’s be honest. If a freak wind gust doesn’t knock down Koepka’s shot at the 12th hole in the final round at the Masters, Koepka is probably wearing a green jacket instead of Woods.
That’s not how it happened, though, and Koepka moved on. He got his putting stroke squared away by the time he got to the Byron Nelson Championship, and he played so well at Bethpage Black that he dominated all but one player, Johnson, the only competitor within five shots of Koepka. Here’s how good Koepka’s opening 63 was: no one in the field finished any round at better than 6 under par the rest of the week. In other words, Koepka spotted the field three full days and they still couldn’t catch him.
Adam Scott joked after 36 holes that he hoped Koepka’s run “doesn’t last 12 years, like Tiger’s.” Beam yourself up, Scotty. It’s going to be a long next decade for you and your pals.
Since Koepka figured out how to the win majors two years ago, he has taken four of the past eight that played. (He missed the 2016 British Open with an injured ankle.) If he keeps up that pace, he’ll get to the double-digit total in major victories – he said he expects to win 10 – in less than three years. Anybody want to call bull---- on that prediction right now? I don’t.
Koepka is nothing like Woods. There is no Next Tiger Woods, by the way. He was the one and only. Yet Koepka does so many things that Woods did. He has a power advantage over most players, a considerably harder feat now than when Woods arrived on Tour in 1996 because there are so many big hitters now. Koepka putts well – more so on Bermudagrass, on which he was raised in south Florida, than on the Northern Poa annua, such as what is found at Bethpage.
If Woods brought strength and fitness to golf in the late 1990s, Koepka has taken it to a new level. It was mesmerizing to watch his excellence in the first two rounds. If you’re really into golf, it was just as mesmerizing to watch Koepka try to overcome his mistakes and the wind coming in.
Woods was the best in class in almost every category of the game, save driving accuracy. Koepka isn’t quite at that level, except when he’s playing a major championship. Where Woods attracted fans with his mega-watt smile and his emotion-packed theatrics after big shots, Koepka keeps the fans at bay, rarely smiles and settles for a touch of the hat brim, a nod or holding out both hands and slapping palms with fans as he moved through the walkway to the next tee.
By the way, he wasn’t offended by the “D-J!” chants. He likes the enthusiasm that the vocal fans here bring.
“It’s New York. What do you expect when you’re half-choking it away?” Koepka said with a smile. I kind of deserved it. You’re going to rattle off four bogeys in a row, and it looks like you’re going to lose it. I’ve been to sporting events in New York. I know how it goes.”
Golf followers know how it goes when Koepka contends in a major. He usually wins. He was asked to describe the last two years.
“Phenomenal,” he said. “I think that’s a good word. It’s been a hell of a run. I’m trying not to let it stop.”
Next up, Pebble Beach. Fair warning: The road to the U.S. Open trophy runs through Koepka.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle