PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The weight of history and the wait for history rides on the broad shoulders of Brooks Koepka.
Today, Koepka will try to win a third straight U.S. Open, a feat accomplished only once, in 1905, by Willie Anderson, a greenskeeper’s son who emigrated from Scotland when he was a teenager.
Are Koepka’s shoulders broad enough to handle 114 years’ worth of waiting? You already know the answer if you watched the first three rounds of this U.S. Open. Koepka has played superbly, arguably better than anyone in the field, but possibly has led the league in putts that lipped out, burned the edge or stopped just short, right in the jaws.
Saturday, Koepka settled for a modest 3-under-par 68. Modest is a relative term, because no player shot lower than 67. So, it was a very good round, no doubt, and bogey-free. It was modest relative only to what might have been. Could Koepka have scored three shots lower in the third round? Easily. Five or six shots lower? Yes. The same goes for his second round. Imagine if Koepka were 10 strokes lower now, at 17 under, and dominating this Open the way Tiger Woods did here in 2000? We’d be engraving his Hall of Fame plaque.
© USGA/MICHAEL REAVES
Brooks Koepka (right) and caddie Ricky Elliott survey their 2nd shot at the par-5 18th hole on Sunday. Koepka made par, signed for a 68 and stood 4 strokes behind in his bid for a 3rd consecutive U.S. Open.
There are no what-ifs in reality, however. In the real world, Koepka still looks like the most dangerous player on the leaderboard. The problem is, he doesn’t have the lead. That belongs to Gary Woodland, at 11 under par. He’s followed by Justin Rose at 10 under, then Koepka, Chez Reavie and Louis Oostbuizen at 7 under (scores).
History, in the form of Woodland, has a four-shot edge over Koepka. I asked USGA official Michael Trostel, a golf historian, whether he had his Willie Anderson shelf stocked and ready to use, just in case. He laughed but mentioned one tidbit that turned up regarding Anderson: Seven men have won two Opens and gone for a three-peat. Anderson did it, and Bobby Jones retired, so he didn’t even try. The other five, Koepka included, were all in 12th place or better going into the final round of their potential three-peat Open.
That’s the kind of trivia that wouldn’t interest Koepka, who hasn’t made catching Anderson sound as if it’s a priority. Oh, he wants to win three in a row in the worst way, absolutely, but he knows that acknowledging Anderson and making it a big deal puts more attention and pressure on him. That wasn’t going to help him get No. 3, so he played it smart. Other than mentioning that he and his caddie drove past a building in Scotland that had Anderson’s name on it, Koepka has deftly avoided the subject.
It could be another break that Koepka isn’t going off in the final pairing today (tee times). The attention and the cameras will be on Woodland and Rose, and that’s a formidable arena Sunday at the Open. Koepka will be a group ahead and can apply more pressure on the final twosome by racking up some early birdies.
The thing about Koepka is, he has become the man to beat in every major in recent years. He has won four of the past nine in which he played, and his 22 rounds in the 60s in major championships since 2017 is more than any other player. Four shots back or not, he is the man to beat. We saw that in St. Louis at last year’s PGA. We saw that at Bethpage Black at this year’s PGA. And we saw it at the last two Opens, at Erin Hills and Shinnecock Hills.
Koepka is golf’s best major-championship closer since young Tiger Woods. “I just enjoy the pressure,” is all Koepka will say about why he’s so tough in majors. “I enjoy having to hit a good golf shot.”
There was an exchange of fortitude during Saturday’s round that was the highlight of the Open, unless you preferred a seagull pecking Phil Mickelson’s ball, Jordan Spieth hitting a shot off a hidden rake or Patrick Reed snapping a wedge shaft over his knee in the second round.
Koepka spent the day relentlessly hunting birdies and moving up the leaderboard. He was in trouble at the 15th hole at the same time Woodland was in a bad bind at the par-3 12th. Woodland semi-bladed his chip from an awkward lie in the greenside fescue across the green while Koepka flew his pitch from a thick lie in the rough across the green to the fringe.
The leaderboard was about to undergo a dramatic change. Except Woodland chipped in for par, a surprise that led to a rare fist pump. Koepka answered by draining a 42-foot putt to save his par. The men were acres apart at the time, but the moment, a television moment produced by Fox Sports, was the moment of the Open. Something today surely will top it.
“At that point, I was just trying to make bogey,” Koepka said of his unlikely par. “I don’t know how it went in, but it looked good all the way. I’m just glad it did.”
Here’s why I think Koepka is going to be difficult to beat. He’s winning this Open the way you’re supposed to do it: by hitting fairways and greens. He ranks first in greens hit in regulation, tied with amateur Viktor Hovland, and third in fairways hit. Rose and Woodland have been getting it done with their putters. Rose is tied for first in putts per hole, while Woodland is seventh.
If nerves are going to be a factor in today’s finale, putting is where they’re going to rear their ugly little heads.
Koepka doesn’t seem worried about anything. He looked fearless even at the 18th hole when his drive got too close to the famed fairway pine. He went ahead and hit a 3-wood, knowing he had to play a hard fade to avoid the Pacific Ocean down the left side. It was a shot that carried risk, but Koepka reckoned that by using 3-wood he could get it near the green and reduce the risk.
That’s how it played out except his second shot took one last bounce into the thick rough near the tall pine right of the green. He pitched it on and two-putted for par, not all bad.
Post-round, he dodged a question about whether he intimidates his opponents. “Ask them,” he said. But he did concede to being confident about the way he’s playing and comfortable in this familiar contending position.
“It feels like almost every major now,” he said. “I was second at Augusta. I’ve put myself in good chances. I don’t need to go out and chase. I don’t need to do much, just let it come me to. From there, if I win, great. If not, I’ve given it all I had this week. I feel good. I feel like if I can just make a few putts, I could be right there next to Gary. I’m pleased how I’m playing.”
When Willie Anderson won his third straight Open, in 1905 at the Myopia Hunt Club, he went into the final round trailing by one stroke. Koepka is four back, but he knows how to close.
“Anything can happen on the back nine,” he said. “Just hang around, keep fighting.”
History will be made today, one way or another.
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