News & Opinion

Beating Koepka in Open won't be easy

If Brooks Koepka looks unstoppable – and his eye-popping performance at the PGA Championship should convince even the skeptics – then, what or who is going to block his path?

After 36 holes at Bethpage Black, Koepka was extraterrestrial, separating himself from the rest of the field as if he were on another planet or even another golf course. Through three rounds, he held a seven-shot lead, and catching him seemed utterly impossible.

But the wind came up at 20-25-mph in the final round, and for a critical stretch, Koepka turned ordinary, making four bogeys in a row to reduce his lead, momentarily, to one shot. The only three things that Tour players fear are firm greens, high rough and wind. Those elements can make an unpredictable game at the highest level turn from expertise into wobbly guesswork.

Fortunately for Koepka, Dustin Johnson turned a great round of golf into simply an excellent one on Sunday by making bogeys at the 16th and 17th holes to hand Koepka a two-shot victory. It was Koepka’s fourth major title in the past 23 months.

The U.S. Open is two weeks away at Pebble Beach, and Koepka is the favorite. Incredibly, Koepka is attempting to win an unprecedented third straight U.S. Open. He was listed at 6-1 odds, according to Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

So, what stands in his way?

Word from the Monterey Peninsula is that the rough is thick and lush at Pebble, and the fairways are single-file narrow. Pebble Beach is quite a bit shorter than Bethpage, so it won’t need to be beaten into submission with 330-yard drives, which Koepka used to pummel the Black Course. And if the wind blows, which it is wont to do at Pebble, all players – even Koepka – will have their hands full.

But Koepka is riding an unprecedented wave of confidence, and it’s unimaginable that he believes that major championships are the easiest tournaments to win. It’s hard to argue with him, given his record in golf’s major championships.

There will be 155 other players in the U.S. Open field, and Koepka believes that half of them can’t win, half of that half won’t believe they can win and most of the rest won’t be playing their best. Which, in Koepkaland, leaves about a dozen players to beat.

Who has the best shot at keeping Koepka from golf history? Will it be Tiger Woods? At the Masters, Woods won his 15th major and his fifth green jacket, while Koepka finished in a three-way tie for second, one shot back.

But, think about this: If Koepka simply had gotten the ball on the green from the tee at the par-3 12th on Sunday, instead of drowning it in Rae’s Creek, we might be having a different conversation.

Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by an unthinkable 15 shots. But that was then. At the PGA, Woods was paired with Koepka in the first two rounds and looked like a 3-handicapper beside Koepka, missing the cut with 72-73, 5 over par. So, maybe not Tiger.

How about Jason Day? Too injured too much. Justin Rose? Doesn’t seem to show up in the big moments. Rory McIlroy? You never know which McIlroy will show up at the majors. Jon Rahm? Too temperamental to win an Open. Rickie Fowler? At age 30, he doesn’t appear to be major material.

So, who, then? Here are five to consider:

  • Dustin Johnson now has runner-up finishes in all four majors, and he’s not excited one bit about it. Johnson has scar tissue as well as success at Pebble Beach, winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am twice and losing spectacularly at the 2010 U.S. Open. He can do everything a U.S. Open asks. He won his Open at Oakmont, perhaps the most demanding test in the game. But is he mentally tough enough over 72 difficult holes to win another Open? Only he can answer that.
  • If anyone has enough guts to take on Koepka and Pebble Beach, it’s Justin Thomas. He won the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, one of the game’s most difficult venues. He appears to be tired of standing on the sidelines while all these majors are being picked off. He has all the tools that Pebble requires. And he knows he’s more than good enough.
  • Jordan Spieth seems to have his confidence almost all the way back. Not 100 percent back; maybe 90. And he appears to be playing angrily, with a chip on his shoulder, which is bad news for Koepka and the rest of the field. He tied for third at the PGA, which didn’t appear to be the kind of course where Spieth would succeed. Pebble Beach is right down his alley, if he can get the ball in the fairway often enough.
  • Francesco Molinari won last year’s British Open at Carnoustie, by far the most difficult course on the Open rota. He was in the Masters until disaster struck at the 12th on Sunday. He has revamped his entire golf game to play in the big events. Most importantly, he believes he should be there.
  • Tommy Fleetwood’s name always seems to come up in this kind of conversation. Fleetwood hasn’t won a major championship and hasn’t even won a PGA Tour event. So, what gives him the chops to think he can win one of these? It goes back to last year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, when he shot an otherworldly 63 in the final round and finished only one shot behind Koepka. Fleetwood appears to live for these moments, in these events.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf