Brooks Koepka bags a 'classic,' again proving himself a worthy U.S. Open champion
Koepka joins an exclusive class that includes Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Jack Nicklaus
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- In winning the 2018 U.S. Open on Sunday afternoon, Brooks Koepka joined Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange as the only two golfers to go back-to-back at the event since World War II. He also joined Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers with a pair of U.S. Open titles before the age of 30.
Koepka backed up his 16-under victory at Erin Hills -- a course that some discounted for its gargantuan fairways and receptive greens -- with a win at Shinnecock Hills -- maybe the greatest and toughest championship venue in the country --with the highest winning score ever recorded in a major at this track (281). Koepka proved not only that last year wasn't a fluke, it was actually foreshadowing for a future that could not be brighter if you dressed it in one of Rickie Fowler's Sunday scripts.
Koepka, who came into the final day tied with three others at 3 over, took hold of the tournament with three birdies in his first five holes on Sunday. All of this came while 27-year-old Englishman. When Fleetwood posted a 2-over 282 with most of the day to go and a big chunk of Koepka's round left to play, the rest of the field had a number to chase. It created a compelling flag in the ground around which the tournament rotated on Sunday afternoon.
At the time Fleetwood posted, Koepka was 1 over with 12 holes left and plenty of golfers on the course he'd need to ward off. Remarkably, his score never rose above 1 over. Fleetwood never even held a share of the lead. Koepka bounced and wriggled around on the back nine of the toughest test of the year, but like Koepka himself, his score never wavered. He held on for dear life at some points, it seemed, but the massive U.S. Open trophy never left his comically-strong grip.
After making the turn with a 2-under 33, Koepka birdied No. 10 from an impossible spot. Then he bogeyed No. 11 from an even more impossible spot. The tournament seemed to turn on that hole. All day it felt as if playing partner Dustin Johnson was the guy still on the course who could roll with Koepka. The final pairing of Tony Finau and Daniel Berger lacked historic punch, and Johnson had a manly win at Oakmont to draw on. D.J. had a makeable birdie putt on No. 11 while Koepka was in the fescue beyond the green with an impossible up and down, which he punched back into a front bunker. Somehow, they both made bogey.
Four straight scrambling fours showed off all the knee-weakening iron trajectories you would expect from a man who has now taken down two beastly U.S. Open courses in the last two years. Koepka also displayed a short game that seems unfair in a set of arms as nuclear as his. He made 20 feet of par putts on Nos. 12-15, and for a moment, it looked like he could just par his way home for the victory. Patrick Reed faltered ahead of him. Johnson limped home next to him. You could feel the tournament start to squirm late, and with a real number already posted, the entertainment hummed as Koepka tried to close.
Then ... the 16th.
There comes an intersection in every major championship where myriad legacies, floating high above the tournament all week, tumble from their ethereal perches. Reality snaps everything about the week into place. All week there was talk of course setup and amateurs and Tiger Woods and breakthrough candidates and who who add to their total major number. The bottom always falls out, though. Sometimes, it happens on Friday or Saturday. More often, it falls on Sunday, when you finally find the thumping heart of the tournament. It's a surreal experience to engulf yourself inside of this moment.
On Sunday, I stood in the middle of the 16th fairway with dust kicking up on every side of the course, the sun fading, golfers' nerves fraying down to the nub and a buzzed crowd ready to see what they traveled to Long Island to witness. It was a mystical scene, one that doesn't last very long before somebody puts a drive or a shot or a putt right through the center of it all.
Sunday's moment came with Finau surprisingly making an attempt to run Koepka down from behind while D.J. looked for something special at his side. In the span of about 45 seconds, Johnson -- needing a super tight approach -- could only muster his third on the par-5 16th to 20 feet; Finau missed a birdie putt on No. 15. Koepka pulled the plug and reality thudded against the Shinnecock grounds. He stiffed one to 4 feet, well inside of D.J. That was it. He had that to get to even, two clear of Fleetwood with just two holes left. He made it and effectively ended three players' hopes simultaneously with one stroke.
Koepka parred No. 17 and made an ugly bogey at the last, but it didn't matter at that point. The trophy was secure. On a course the USGA could not seem to get right on the weekend, Koepka shot even par 72-68, and somewhat ironically given an easier Sunday setup, won the day by making tough par after tough par coming home.
"It's what won today for him," Strange said. "When you mishit a shot ... you can't play well over five hours perfect on these conditions on this golf course. You're going to leak some oil somewhere. He did that, but he was up to the challenge. Then he turned it around. ... I don't know what happened here [at the 18th]. This is all about nerves. You couldn't spit if you had a knife to your stomach."
There's a reason only three men have stacked U.S. Open wins on top of one another since the second World War. The national championship is difficult in the same way walking 50 straight miles on a shallow incline is difficult. It wears you out and makes you want to quit, and you finally get to the end -- if you get to the end -- the tank is completely and totally empty.
But this is also why Koepka is so good in U.S. Opens (five straight top 20s, three top fives and two wins). He expends literally no energy worrying about what's going on around him. Every ounce of spiritual, physical and mental capital he has at his disposal is submitted into whatever is in front of him. It's easy to get swept away by the speed and tidal wave of energy on a weekend at one of these things. Koepka looks like and acts like a rock.
At so many points on the back nine on Sunday, it felt as if D.J. should be gaining ground on the now two-time champ. Instead, he was losing it. As everyone on the course (and in the media center!) tried to will the last two U.S. Open champs into a slugfest coming home, only Koepka was a willing participant.The fans didn't seem to care.
You could not design a more perfect player for these Long Island crowds to will toward the finish line. From the way they said his name to what they shouted to spur him on -- "Little more curls wouldn't kill ya, Bruks Kep-Kah!" -- he was both their shield against all the Europeans rising up the leaderboard and the embodiment of what they all wanted to be.
One of those in the gallery was his father, Bob, who watched from home last year when his son took his nation's championship. Koepka said he hasn't gotten his father a present on Father's Day for two straight years, except, you know, a couple U.S. Open trophies.
"He came back from his workout and called me," Bob shared. "I told him, 'I have such a good feeling.' He said, 'I'm going to get it, Dad. Just be prepared.'"
Another member of the entourage on Sunday was Strange, the last player to go back-to-back at the U.S. Open. He's now a Fox analyst, and he walked the whole day with the Koepka-Johnson pairing. He got choked up when he was asked about what it was like calling the action and reliving the memories from his two-peat at The Country Club and Oak Hill in 1988 and 1989.
"This was really special," Strange said as he held back tears. "He played so well, gosh. He deserved to win. He did exactly what he had to do. He's some player."
It's true that not all U.S. Opens are created equal, and where Erin Hills was semi-sketchy, Shinnecock is as legitimate a test as this sport produces. It's a place that produces a champion that is both worthy of this championship and of this course.
"It's incredible," Koepka said. "I looked at all these names a million times, it felt like, last year, just looking at everybody. To have my name on there twice is pretty incredible, and to go back-to-back is even more extraordinary. It feels so special. I'm truly honored to go back-to-back."
"It was a pretty cool moment to have Curtis there," he added. "It was cool to have him in the group. ... When I walked up 18, it was pretty special."
This course produced another great one on Sunday when Brooks Koepka proved he can win a hard U.S. Open just as he did an easy one last year. He can win a wide one and a tight one, a crooked one and a worthy one, a notorious one and a historic one.
Strange welcomed him to the club, a club of two -- the only two men alive who have won this tournament in consecutive years.
"I'm proud of him because there was some talk last year about Erin Hills not being the Open," Strange said at the end of a long Sunday. " ... He won on a classic, so he's an Open player."
Then Strange added that Koepka could three-peat, a feat Strange came up short of achieving in 1990 at Medinah.
"Where do we go next year, Pebble [Beach]? He's proved he can win on a classic."
Winning three in a row might be even too mammoth a task for the mighty Koepka. After all, it has only happened once, and that was over a century ago (Willie Anderson, 1903-05).
For now, next year doesn't matter. All that matters is that Koepka just took two U.S. Opens that could not have been more different if Mike Davis had let me set them up.
Koepka showed that he is both a scoring machine and a defender of the darkest test in golf, a U.S. Open whose winner finds himself over par.
The disparity in these two U.S. Opens was startling. Where Erin Hills only had one question, Shinnecock asked so many of its participants this year. It asked them to carve up the weather, to get up and down from everywhere, to find every trajectory and to drive it forever. Last year, Koepka answered the one question and he did so resoundingly. This year, he answered them all.
Strange was right. He's some player.
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