PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The last time anyone won three consecutive U.S. Open titles, Teddy Roosevelt was president, America had only 45 states; the Wright Brothers built the first plane that could stay in the air for 30 minutes; and Albert Einstein published his “Theory of Relativity.”
The year was 1905. Willie Anderson, an immigrant Scotsman, completed his three-peat at Massachusetts’ Myopia Hunt Club.
Brooks Koepka is trying to match that historic feat. He has won four major championships in two years – the past two U.S. Opens and past two PGAs – and he has established himself as the best golfer on the planet. Yet he’s not getting the kind of recognition that one might expect for such a blazing trail through the pages of golfing lore.
The Earth might stop spinning on its axis if, say, Tiger Woods were going for a third straight U.S. Open.
Somehow, Koepka is not in the fast lane of media stardom, even though he is blasting past in the HOV lane of success. Yes, Koepka is among the betting favorites at Pebble Beach this week, at 8-1, just behind 7-1 pick Dustin Johnson. Koepka is miffed that he isn’t mentioned or shown in one of Fox Sports’ promotional spots for the U.S. Open. I’m not sure which one he saw, because I couldn’t find one online that didn’t include him.
Koepka is taking this slight personally. Maybe that’s one way he gets himself fired up to compete in a major championship. Maybe it’s a chip he puts on his own shoulder in order to get the best of himself.
“There’s a Fox commercial where I’m not even it in,” Koepka said Tuesday morning. “Like, how do you forget that? A bunch of people on Twitter tagged me. I clicked on the link and watched it. I was just kind of shocked. They’ve had over a year to put it out. Somebody probably got fired over it. Or should.”
Two Koepka phenomena are taking place. One, the rapid rate at which he is piling up major championships. At age 29, he already is nearly halfway to the double-digit major total that he thinks he can reach. The second one is the media’s general failure to get a handle on just how good he is.
The latter isn’t based on being unworthy. It can’t be. His record in majors proves it. It can be only that fans – and the media – are more interested in Woods winning a 16th major or Phil Mickelson finally snagging an elusive U.S. Open or Jordan Spieth getting his mojo back than in Koepka continuing his relentless winning with all the fun and frolic of General Sherman’s torch-and-go march from Atlanta to Savannah.
Koepka gets respect; he just doesn’t get the love.
“You know, this isn’t just a run he’s on. This is who he is,” Spieth said Tuesday morning at Pebble Beach. “He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with for decades, so get used to it.”
Let’s recap Koepka’s dismissals. He won his first U.S. Open at Erin Hills. Ah, critics said, the fairways were too wide and the course was too soft. (Well, it did rain pretty hard.) At the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, he was coming back from a layoff due to a wrist injury that caused him to miss the Masters Tournament. Out of sight, out of mind … and he won Open No. 2.
Woods’ fine play at Carnoustie last summer made him, not Koepka, a focal point later at the PGA at Bellerive. Koepka held the lead and withstood a final-round charge by Woods.
Now, here we are again. Woods won the Masters, which Koepka could-shoulda won if he got luckier with a wind gust at the 12th hole in the final round or had played a smarter, more conservative shot. Koepka captured the PGA Championship at Bethpage the next month, so why isn’t he on the tips of our tongues? Was it because he lost most of a large lead before getting it back?
Critics say Pebble Beach isn’t a course for Koepka. But wait, doesn’t Dustin Johnson, whose game is similar to Koepka’s, usually play well here?
“There are a hundred reasons Brooks can win here this week,” said two-time Open champion Andy North, who is working this Open for ESPN (tee times). “He can absolutely win. He is one of the few players who understands how to attack and play major-championship courses.
“People think because he’s not going to be hitting 350-yard drives that it’s a disadvantage for him. But he’s like Tiger. He understands how to use length properly and make it an advantage. He’ll hit a lot of irons off tees and hit a lot of fairways, and he’s able to spin it with his short irons even if the greens firm up.”
There is plenty to like about Koepka’s game. He has the rare closer gene. Remember the iron shot that he drilled pin-high on the par 3 hole from 220 yards-plus in St. Louis in the final round? Remember the wedge shot that he stuck tight at Shinnecock Hills to all but clinch his first Open title?
He’s a long hitter, a very good iron player, makes clutch putts and plays smart golf. He plays Tiger Woods golf, to be honest, although he doesn’t do it in the same way or with the same style. Who could?
There, that’s the real stumbling block that the media and the public have with Koepka: He’s not Tiger Woods. Woods gave us fist pumps, spectacular shots and drama. Koepka gives us a grudging, humorless tip of the cap. Woods was a great golfer and an entertainer. Koepka is in the former category, ala Ben Hogan. He doesn’t do entertaining.
Koepka didn’t touch a club after the PGA Championship until Tuesday of last week, when he started practicing for the RBC Canadian Open. He wasn’t worried about winning that event, and he didn’t tying for 50th. He used it as a vehicle to start fine-tuning his game for the U.S. Open.
And, you know, a piece of 114-year-old history: Koepka knows about three in a row.
“Yeah, I’ve had 12 months to think about it,” he said. “I try to put that it the back of my mind. This is just another golf tournament. I have to go out and do what I’m supposed to do. This is such a special place. It’s going to be a tough test.”
With his sudden rise to prominence in the past few years, Koepka, has found an edge. Suddenly, he’s got just as much experience trying to win a major as anyone other than Woods or Mickelson. His PGA Championship final-round fade when he lost a big lead turned into another tour de force victory. You can’t buy that kind of experience.
“I didn’t really know what was up at that point,” Koepka said of his PGA slide. “Have to correct things and reset myself. Now I know how to do that under pressure. I know how to handle myself and right the ship. That’s going to be important. I was lucky enough to win it. A U.S. Open is a different test, but it will definitely be a big advantage going forward.”
This is a big week for golf. “This is our Super Bowl,” Spieth said.
It’s bigger for Koepka than anyone else.
“It’s funny about Willie Anderson,” Koepka said. “We were in Scotland last year and saw his name on a building, I guess where he used to live or something, but I don’t know too much about him. What was it, a hundred-and-some years?”
Make it 114. Willie has waited a long time to see this.
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