Sally Jenkins: It's getting harder to overlook Brooks Koepka
ST. LOUIS — Brooks Koepka might have felt more breath on his neck if it wasn’t quite so thick. Try to push him in the back. Go on, just try. See if he gives an inch. Koepka is now one of the most substantial golfers in the world with his victory in the PGA Championship, and the proof of it was that not even a mighty 64 by Tiger Woods was quite enough to shake him.
It is hard to think of anything more ratifying for Koepka than the name of his runner-up in the 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club. How many men get to say that they held off a great-hearted, daylong charge by Woods, the winner of 14 major championships, who posted no fewer than eight birdies across the par-70 course, including two in his last four holes, for his lowest score ever in a major? “I had to go get it, and I tried,” Woods said later. And how many men can say they are among only five in history who have won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship in the very same year? Gene Sarazen in 1922, Ben Hogan in 1948, Jack Nicklaus in 1980 and Woods in 2000. That is the company Koepka now joins.
Bellerive was a handsome, conventional par-70 lacking in any truly distinguishing holes, but what it did have was soft Zoysia grass that felt like carpet underfoot and created so much beautiful shot-making that the golf tournament seemed as exciting as a horse race. Koepka, the two-time defending U.S. Open champion, started the day with a two-stroke lead and withstood runs not just from Woods but from an assortment of other established major winners, including 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott, who tied him early on the back nine, and defending PGA champ Justin Thomas, who lurked continually within a stroke or two. “They definitely made me question it there for a bit, or think about it, for sure,” Koepka said. But Koepka was simply immovable at the top of the leader board, as he answered with a 66 that included a half-dozen birdies and kept victory just out of reach for everyone else. After his two-stroke victory, he couldn’t remember a moment when he had felt truly rattled.
“I honestly can’t,” Koepka said. “You know, I have a lot of self-belief. I just hung in there and made one more shot, one more good shot.”
Koepka, 28, is one of those players fueled by a chronic sense of disrespect. He once was mistaken for a club pro by Tom Watson and is continually overshadowed by flashier phenoms like Thomas and Jordan Spieth. He has chosen to combat it silently by launching an assault on the world’s biggest titles with the clubs in his bag. “I use it as motivation,” he said Saturday night. “You can’t hide when you’re on top of the leader board. You can’t hide my name. So get to the top and work from there.”
Even on Saturday morning, Koepka felt overlooked when he went to the gym with his good friend, the far more recognizable Dustin Johnson, who has spent much of this season ranked No.1. While Johnson was surrounded by fans who wanted their pictures taken with him, nobody bothered with the reigning U.S. Open champion Koepka, who stood by quietly. “I was just standing there laughing,” Koepka said. “They were like, ‘Did you see that the No.1 player in the world was here?’ It’s like, yeah, okay. I don’t know what to say to that. It was like, all right.”
But Koepka has a deep sense of inner deserving that’s based on conditioning. He works out every day and lifted weights even on the Sunday morning of the championship. “It’s better for you than sitting in bed, sitting on the couch,” he said. Though he looks like a player who wins on pure brute physique, in fact he is an elegant iron player and smooth stroker on the greens. “He put it all together,” Woods said later. “He didn’t just have the driving. He had the iron game, he had the putting, and [he] made some key up and downs the last couple rounds I saw to keep himself in the tournament and then end up winning the tournament.”
He has quietly built an astonishingly consistent record in the big events that bespeaks what a complete and versatile player he is: In 12 of his past 13 majors he has finished 21st or better, and in fully seven of those he has been in the top 10. What separates him is “Just how well he plays when the lights shine on him,” Thomas said Sunday night. “When he needs to do it the most he seems to perform the best. He does it week in, week out. You look at his performance in the majors, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
Above all Koepka has the gift of focus. Once a tournament is in his grip, it’s like fighting with a python. “For some reason I can really tune into majors,” he said. “They really get my attention.” At the U.S. Open he said all week that he felt it was his tournament to lose, that someone would have to take it from him. He had a similar confidence here. “I feel like if I do what I’m supposed to, I should win the golf tournament,” he said Saturday night.
If anything could have broken that focus, it was the tremendous, earth-tremoring noise that Woods made as he assaulted the course. All week Bellerive had been giving up low scores, and Woods, starting four back, knew that a merely decent round wouldn’t get him anywhere.
“I couldn’t sit still and make pars and be okay with it,” he said.
At 42, after four back surgeries, this was the first season since 2015 in which Woods was able to play in all four majors, much less contend. In other false starts, he seemed half the player he once was. But in the past month he has seemed nearly whole again, especially after a sixth-place finish at the British Open in which he briefly led.
When Woods birdied two of his first three holes to vault into second place, with iron shots that fell near the cups like stakes in the ground, the crowd noise sounded like huge detonations. “It’s pretty apparent what a Tiger roar is versus anybody else,” Thomas said.
But no sooner had Woods done so than Koepka strode on to the course and struck a wedge to gimme distance on the first hole to move to 13-under. So, Woods, even with two birdies, was still three strokes back. That was the sort of two-steps-up-one-step-back kind of day it was going to be, trying to catch Koepka. “I was always trailing,” Woods said.
For much of the afternoon, the leader board was a traffic jam, with players shuffling and jockeying for position. Scott birdied five of seven holes from the sixth to the 13th with his massive pendulum of a putter, to briefly tie for the lead. At one point, fifteen players were within two strokes of Koepka, and it was literally anybody’s tournament.
“I knew I’d have a chance to separate myself,” Koepka said.
It came at the 15th, where he rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt, and then Koepka slammed the door with a laser of an iron shot at the par-3 16th that rolled to seven feet. The putt went straight into the center. Without a waver.
Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.