2019 PGA Championship: Brooks Koepka finds his edge, exuding toughness in fourth major win
Manufactured or not, Koepka found a way to win another of the biggest events in golf
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- "I'm bored!" hollered a fan in the gallery at the 11th hole during Sunday's final round of at Bethpage Black. It was loud and obnoxious and probably inappropriate, but the dirty little secret of this 101st edition of the PGA Championship is that it was exactly what we were all thinking at the time. Brooks Koepka had just birdied the par-4 10th, one of the hardest holes on the course, to open up a six-stroke lead on Dustin Johnson with just eight holes to play.
Little did the bored man nor a lethargic gallery nor a glazed-over audience know what was in store over the next 100 minutes. The man who is a self-proclaimed flatliner was about to test how much stress that 29-year-old heart could take without it rising above a major championship-winning level.
It started as most train wrecks do -- with a single small mistake. Koepka barely pulled his drive at the tough par-4 11th -- one of 24 fairways he missed on the week -- and had to pitch out before making bogey. He compounded that with another missed fairway at No. 12 and another bogey. There weren't any serious concerns at that point because the course was playing to a scoring average of more than 3 over on the day, and Koepka was still four clear of Dustin Johnson.
Then Koepka bogeyed the par-5 13th and things started moving downhill quickly. He strutted (because that's all he ever does) to the 14th tee box, a basic 149-yard par 3. From that hole you can see across the road and across the course to the elevated 15th green where Johnson had just made a thunderous birdie to cut Koepka's lead to two. Koepka definitely heard it, and his answer was to fly the green with his tee shot and make another bogey, his fourth in a row.
The lead was one.
After three days of leading by four and five and six and seven over the best golfers on the planet, Brooks Koepka had four holes left to play and just one stroke separating him and his closest competitor.
"It's nine to eight," said a boy to his father. And it was.
Then another, stranger, thing happened. The crowd turned on him. These New Yorkers -- who love nothing more than a self-made, chip-on-his-shoulder swaggering bad-ass who earns it by actually going out and doing it -- completely flipped. They chanted "Dee-Jay! Dee-Jay!" as Koepka cleaned up his four and left the 14th. Maybe it was an anti-Koepka sentiment, or maybe they just wanted the competitive tournament they were promised.
The next few moments were chaotic. The back of the 14th empties into the closing stretch of holes, and as Koepka crossed the road to get to the tee box, D.J. sauntered up the 16th, which runs parallel to where Koepka stood. There they were, 30 yards apart, separated by one grandstand and two big trophies.
"I was just in shock, I think," said Koepka afterward. "I was in shock of what was going on."
"I think I kind of deserved [the D.J. chants]," he added. "You're going to rattle off four 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. What do you expect when you're half-choking it away?"
The great irony of this moment is that it probably propelled Koepka to the win. He punished a 350-yard drive -- his longest of the week -- up the 15th and watched to his left as he walked up the fairway. Johnson failed to get up and down for par. The lead was again two, and then it moved to three after Johnson bogeyed the 17th.
"I think [the chanting] actually helped," said Koepka. "It was at a perfect time because I was just thinking, 'OK, all right. I've got everybody against me. Let's go.'"
This is how Koepka operates.
It seems almost uncomfortable for him to run from out in front where he's being slapped on the back and kissed on the ass. He wants to be the one who's written off. He wants to be the one who's considered inadequate, the one who's chastised for not being tough. It is part of his DNA as a golfer, and it's one of the handful of answers to why he has twice as many major wins as regular PGA Tour victories.
There aren't enough haters in the regular season, apparently.
"There's always a chip. I think every great athlete always has a chip, whether it be somebody saying you can't do something, " said Koepka. "... I feel like you look at Michael Jordan ... I've heard him talk about having a chip on his shoulder, and I think that's important."
On Sunday at this mighty mountain of a state park, Koepka had an entire self-contained world closing in on him. And as soon as Koepka felt the scene sway is the moment he closed the final four in just 1 over, which was one better than he needed for his fourth major.
The last hole was maybe the craziest. An unsuspecting marshal broke the dam, and a gaggle of lubricated New Yorkers started galloping for the fairway behind Koepka. It was a terrifying scene in which to be in the middle. But much like the way he handled the tournament and a charging D.J., Koepka never broke his cocksure stride. After punching out yet again, he hit a 67-yard chip to 5 feet and putted out for a 74 on the day and 272 on the week. At 8 under, Koepka finished two startling strokes clear of Johnson and six of the rest of the golf world.
"Playing with the lead is a different feeling," said Koekpa. "It is. It's very difficult. You want to extend it. But also, you're not trying to come back to the field. So every time you make a bogey, you're kind of thinking, 'I'm bringing everybody back; I'm bringing everybody back. I keep coming back. Why am I doing this? What's going on?' I don't want to say it's a panic, but it's definitely a shock when you make a couple ..."
Koepks closed with more emotion than his first three majors combined, and it somehow felt like -- even though he was picked by most to win and was the favorite from start to finish -- the chip remained, which is maybe an omen for the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
"Today was definitely the most satisfying out of all of them for how stressful that round was," said Koepka. "How stressful D.J. made that. That was ... I know for a fact, that was the most excited I've ever been in my life ever there on 18."
Only 29 men have ever won four or more majors, and only 18 have done it since World War II. The active golfers who have accomplished this feat are Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy. They're all legends, and now Koepka is one as well. Koepka's fame was forged in a place famous for creating giants. This is his fourth major in eight tries (a run only Nicklaus, Woods and Hogan have ever matched), and he's the first golfer to ever hold consecutive titles at two different majors simultaneously.
Majors never seem to go the way you think they're going to go. Not even when you have a three-time major winner going into the final day with a seven-stroke lead. But Koepka weathered a storm no golfer wants to encounter: D.J. coming around the final turn at a nasty track like Bethpage with the wind howling and nowhere to hide. He was as exposed as you can be late on a Sunday.
Major championship golf gives you every out in the world, every possible chance to sheath your sword and retreat into obscurity. The pressure of a Sunday at a major when you're rolling the wrong way and the crowd is reminding you of that gives you the ultimate eject button.
Koepka runs the other way, right where the fire is the hottest. Some are built like this. I'm not sure it's something you can learn.
So maybe people will remember the 2019 PGA Championship as the one that nearly got away from Brooks Koepka, but I'll remember it for that "screw all of you" drive on the 15th right up the middle of the fairway and the up and down of his life at the 72nd to join McIlroy in the "four majors under age 40" club. I'll remember it for the 63-65 open and the way he turned himself into a wire-to-wire underdog. I'll remember that we can (and will) say many things about him as we enter the final two majors of the year and his first two opportunities to enter a mega-exclusive five-major group.
The one thing you can't ever say again -- after the way he slayed as hard a test as a pro golfer is ever going to face -- is that Brooks Koepka isn't tough.
As long as the chip is in its proper place, right next to that yoked-up neck of his, he's always going to be as tough a golfer as anyone from his or any other generation.
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