Brooks Koepka’s PGA Win Was His Toughest Major Despite Its Appearance
BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Damn near everybody at Bethpage Black was trying to get inside Brooks Koepka’s head, and even his caddie couldn’t do it. The fans were screaming for the charging Dustin Johnson. Koepka was making four straight bogeys to encourage them. His caddie, Ricky Elliott, said, “It’s the most nervous I’ve ever seen Brooks in my life.” Koepka said, “No, I wasn't nervous. I was just in shock, I think. I was in shock of what was kind of going on.”
Brooks Koepka is golf’s repeat king. His résumé is an echo chamber: Brooks Koepka, Brooks Koepka, U.S Open champion, U.S. Open champion, PGA champion, PGA champion. That’s two back-to-backs, four majors in eight tries, and you know what? This PGA was the easiest to us and the hardest for him.
We saw him arrive at Bethpage Black on Sunday with a seven-shot lead. He saw a course that grew fangs. The final round of this PGA played like a U.S. Open course with British Open conditions. Every drive was a risk, and every approach was a guess. Elliott said, “Generally there’s two par-fives out there, but today there were six. It was just unbelievably tricky. We were playing a 30-yard wind most of the day into these holes. You’re playing 165, trying to hit it 195."
The popular narrative about Koepka is that he doesn’t feel pressure. Those who know him best say it; those who watched him win four majors in eight tries believe it. What we can say, for sure, is that Koepka does not believe he feels pressure.
On the 72nd hole of last year’s U.S. Open, Koepka yanked his approach off the grandstand, an awful shot, but he never considered that he did so because he succumbed to the moment. That belief allowed him to recover, calmly make the bogey he needed, and win.
And so, when Koepka made those four straight bogeys on the back nine Sunday, and Johnson sliced his lead to one, he did not see it as a mini-meltdown. To Koepka, it was more like a natural disaster: It’s not the house’s fault the tornado hit it.
Koepka began this PGA with 27 straight bogey-free holes. When he made four straight bogeys, everybody noticed and quite a few people celebrated. Most of the New York fans were great, but there were an unusually high number of boorish ones; at least five men were seen peeing in the woods this week, and the catcalls were both high-volume and profane. As Koepka squandered his lead, the gallery chanted, “DJ! DJ!”
This must have confused him. Did they not realize he is Brooks Koepka, and he wins these things? The best reassurance Elliott could offer was, “You know, you’ve bogeyed four in a row, so there’s a good chance you’re going to par.” It was like telling a man his fifth marriage was due to last.
Koepka said the crowd set his game straight. He smoked his drive 350 yards down No. 15's fairway—“nerveless,” Elliott said. Koepka made par on 15, and par again on 16, ending the brief hopes of the fans, and of Johnson, and of anybody who thought Koepka might develop his first major-championship scar.
Looking back, what happened here? Did Koepka’s mind betray him, or did the course take a piece of him like it did everybody else? He is probably right: It was the latter. The gusts were so strong that even when Koepka holed a three-foot putt on 16, he told Elliott the wind affected it. That explains his three-putt on 17, too. And it explains why he started missing fairways.
This is why it was the hardest for him: not because he was choking or worried, but because it was hard for everybody. Koepka will forever be sure he hit his approach on 14 exactly as he wanted, but the wind died.
“I felt like I just got stuck on a bogey train,” Koepka said. "I can't tell you the last time I've made four bogeys in a row. I don't know if I ever have—I'm sure I have. But (I) just had to reset.”
The more Koepka wins, the more Koepkan he gets. Elliott said, “If you were going for your first, it might have been different.” Koepka so thoroughly expects to win, and has so much history that confirms he will, that it is hard to envision him beating himself. He is, in that way, like Tiger Woods.
His run will draw comparisons to Woods, which are not quite justified and not really fair to either of them. Woods’s most dominant stretches surpass what Koepka has done. But this is the best stretch of major-championship golf since Tiger’s prime: longer than Jordan Spieth’s run in 2015, more impressive than Rory McIlroy’s rise before that.
As Koepka approached the scoring tent, he gave the PGA of America’s Julius Mason a fist-bump and joked about making it close. Koepka says he normally needs five minutes to get over a bad round. His 74 Sunday won a championship, so it was a great round, or at least as great as he needed it to be. But it still took a few minutes to make sense of it.
Koepka said it was the most satisfying of his majors. And Elliott said Koepka was nervous … but then he was asked again and he thought about it and he said he wasn’t actually sure Koepka was nervous … and then he replaced “nervous” with “anxious” ... and then he seemed to realize he was making an assumption about Brooks Koepka as though he were not Brooks Koepka. Maybe they were both right: This was the most nervous that Koepka has ever been, and he wasn’t nervous at all.