News & Opinion

Koepka solidifies his place at top of game

Sometime after the 2004 golf season, it was noted that Phil Mickelson was “five swings away” from the Grand Slam. I don’t recall whether Mickelson or one of us media hacks said it.

Sometime after the 2004 golf season, it was noted that Phil Mickelson was “five swings away” from the Grand Slam.

I don’t recall whether Mickelson or one of us media hacks said it. Though the line packed some shock value, there was some truth to it. In ’04, Mickelson won the Masters; lost to Retief Goosen after a double bogey on the U.S. Open’s 71st hole; missed the Todd Hamilton-Ernie Els playoff at the British Open by a stroke; and bogeyed the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits when he needed a birdie to join the playoff won by Vijay Singh.

Five swings in the right places and, yes, Mickelson would have had a grand shot at a calendar-year slam.

Brooks Koepka
American Brooks Koepka strengthens his hold on the world’s No. 1 ranking with a victory Sunday at the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis, Tenn.

Brooks Koepka can’t say he was five swings away from a Grand Slam in 2019. Shane Lowry ran away from most of his pursuers at Royal Portrush. Koepka finished nine strokes – or three field goals – behind Lowry.

Yet Koepka seemed strikingly close to the Grand Slam Avenue exit ramp off the History Freeway. He finished one shot behind Tiger Woods at the Masters. Take away a sudden gust that dumped his shot into Rae’s Creek at Amen Corner on Sunday and he maybe wins the Masters.

Koepka came up three strokes short of Gary Woodland at the U.S. Open, and if Woodland falters at all on the final nine at Pebble Beach, if his crazy 3-wood shot at the 14th hole ends up anywhere else than in the fortunate spot it found – or if Koepka doesn’t leave four to six putts out there in each of the first three rounds – maybe Koepka wins.

Koepka squandered a big lead in the PGA Championship’s final round, but he recovered to win.

He already knows the secret to winning majors: being there in the mix on the final nine, and he relishes that. He won’t win them all, but if he does that, he’ll win his share, plus a few that the other fellow spills off his tray. See Nick Faldo in Augusta versus Scott Hoch, and Raymond Floyd and Greg Norman, for instance.

The British Open at Royal Portrush was the final major of the year – the final major of the 2010s decade, for that matter. We’re used to having a PGA in August, but the Big Ones in 2019 are over. My apologies to the World Golf Championships title that Koepka just won in Memphis, Tenn., after dusting Rory McIlroy in the final round, and the cash grab that is the FexEx Cup.

Though the media were agog about Tiger Woods winning the Masters, the real story of this year has crystalized.

Koepka became golf’s dominant player in 2019. He is No. 1, hands down, no questions asked, and whoever holds No. 2 does so from a growing distance. Koepka won one major, was a few swings away from taking two more and made it evident that he will be the man most likely to chase historical records and go deep. Not McIlroy, who hasn’t won a major in five years. Not Woods, whose Masters victory seems even more amazing now that he looks like an aging pitcher trying to get batters out with off-speed junk because his fragile back means his fastball is gone.

There was no run at a Grand Slam in 2019. Woods won the Masters and evaporated; end of story. Koepka’s 2019 is less compelling in that regard compared with Jordan Spieth’s 2015 season in which he chased the Grand Slam all the way to the 72nd hole of the British Open at St. Andrews, then lost a record shootout to Jason Day at the PGA Championship.

Koepka has two victories, two runners-up and a tie for fourth in his past five majors. He joined Jack Nicklaus, Woods and Spieth as the fourth member of an elite club: players who finished fourth or better in all four majors in a calendar year.

This was a ridiculous year no matter how you look at it. Koepka finished 36 under par in 2019’s four majors. No one who made all four cuts in the majors was within 20 shots of that.

Turn the 2019 majors into a won-lost-tied comparison based on all the players who competed and Koepka’s numbers look like this: 542 wins, 5 losses, 4 ties. That’s stupid good.

Koepka is not invincible. He is from Florida and has said he doesn’t like Poa annua greens; he prefers Bermuda. He convinced me of that the way he putted at Pebble Beach and Royal Portrush – not awful, but just off enough to miss a basket of birdie opportunities.

The point is this: We will not often see a year like this. We’ve been spoiled to have Woods and the 2001 Tiger Slam and Spieth’s 2015 chase in less than two decades. This were epochal happenings, beyond the norm.

You can nitpick Koepka’s record in regular PGA Tour events. Even he has conceded that he doesn’t prepare to play in those. That shouldn’t be a cause for criticism. Isn’t he exactly what the public and the media want? We’re out here counting major championships and measuring careers by them and saying how they’re the only titles that truly matter, and he heard us. That is how he approaches professional golf: majors first, everything else second.

Nicklaus didn’t make much effort to play a lot of regular tour events once he’d piled on the majors. Ben Hogan didn’t, either. It looks as if Woods will play sparingly from now on, given his fragile back.

Think how different 2019 would look if Koepka had, in fact, edged Woods at the Masters. The Tigermania effect from that Masters victory would have been smaller, the media frenzy would have been less and the focus on Koepka chasing a Grand Slam – especially after opening that daunting lead at the PGA – would have been infinitely greater.

Even the dullest golf writer would be discussing the Brooks Koepka Era.

Well, that didn’t happen. Woods won the Masters.

Koepka took the PGA Championship, his only major title of the year, yet it still looks unmistakably like his time.

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