Koepka's 67 cops U.S. Open

Writing from Erin, Wisconsin

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Outside of members of his family, Brooks Koepka wasn’t anyone’s first pick to win the 117th United States Open at the start of the week at Erin Hills.

He’s the toast of the town – and destinations beyond – now.

Koepka won the big prize on Sunday with a 5-under-par 67 for 16-under 272 that pulled him away from a field of close contenders and pretenders who, like him, had never won a professional major championship.

The 27-year-old Florida native excelled when overnight leader Brian Harman could manage only par 72, when Hideki Matsuyama’s best-of-the-day 6-under 66 to match Harman at 12-under 276 was too little, too late, and when the rest of those in the hunt – here’s looking at you, Rickie Fowler – barely got a sniff.

Whereas many U.S. Opens are won by the winner fading less than the rest, Koepka went out and won it. He’d grabbed the lead momentarily with a 20-foot birdie putt on the devilish par-3 ninth hole, a hint of what was to come. Bogey on the 10th brought him back to 13-under with Harman, who would bogey the 12th and 13th holes, sliding to 11-under, while Koepka made this run:

• a 6-foot birdie putt on the par-5 14th after hitting his 300-yard approach into a bunker, moving him to 14-under and two strokes ahead;

• a 10-foot birdie putt sliding ever so slightly from right to left on the par-4 15th, for a three-stroke lead and all but lock it up – recognized by a baby fist pump;

• and a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th, to go up by four.

To Koepka, it all started with a par save on the par-3 13th.

“Massive,” Koepka said. “I needed to make that if I was going to win this golf tournament. That’s the reason I felt I had so much confidence coming down, especially with the par-5 coming up, knowing you needed to birdie that.”

While Koepka was winning it, in part by hitting 17 greens in the final round and a mind-boggling 62 of 72 for the week, Harman, hitting only eight of Erin Hills’ 14 broad fairways, was throwing his way his best chance at a major so far.

Maybe it was the wind, a good 15 mph most of the afternoon, or maybe it was him. Visiting belt-high fescue at one point, he bogeyed three holes on the back nine after not bogeying any of them in the first three rounds. With three holes to go, a birdie-birdie-eagle finish would have brought him a tie with Koepka, but Harman could manage only the one birdie, at the par-3 16th via a brilliant approach to a foot. When his tee shot on the par-5 18th ended up in a bunker, even his shot at an albatross for a miracle tie flew away.

“I just wish I was able to put a little more pressure on the course,” Harman said. “ I just didn’t drive it as well today as I wanted to,” Harman said. “That would be something I’d work on going forward.

“I don’t feel as though I lost a golf tournament. I think Brooks went out and won the tournament.”

True. And Matsuyama, aside from being put on the clock with John “J.B.” Holmes, was in the same mental vicinity.

“If I learned anything, you’ve got to put four good rounds together,” Matsuyama said though an interpreter. “I played two good rounds, but it wasn’t enough. Hopefully in the fiture I can play in either the last or next to last group to give myself a better chance.”

Matsuyama birdied the 18th hole via a 2 1/2-foot putt to get to 12-under 276 when Koepka was 13-under with four holes left and Harman had just fallen to 12-under on the 12th. That was a good number to be sitting on in the clubhouse until Koepka’s birdie barrage.

All this had been building for Koepka, or so it seemed. He made his way to the PGA Tour via Europe, hardly conventional for a Florida State grad. He’d won at Phoenix two years ago. He’d scored four top-10 finishes in majors since 2014, including a tie for fourth in the 2014 U.S. Open. He went 3-1 in last year’s Ryder Cup.

He had length – a 379-yard 3-wood off the 18th tee drew gasps from the gallery of 35,000 – and smarts and everything needed to win. He just hadn’t often won, underachieving by his standards after a handful of European Challenge Tour wins, a European Tour title, a win in Japan, and the triumph in Phoenix. Now he has a major and a share of the U.S. Open under-par scoring record. Rory McIlroy, who watched the final two rounds of the weekend from afar, went 16-under at Congressional in 2011.

“I felt like I put myself in contention so many times,” Koepka said. “I don’t want to say I got unlucky. I felt like I just never fully came together. I put myself in some good chances over the last few years and never really quite came through.

“I just felt like I should be winning more. I don’t know why. Not a big fan of losing; I don’t think anyone out here is. And I just couldn’t stand the fact that I’d only won once.”

A phone call Saturday night from Dustin Johnson, who missed the cut in defending his title, might have been the last piece of the puzzle.

“It was a long phone call for us,” Koepka said. “It was like two minutes.”

The message: “Just stay patient.”

“I’ll win if I stay patient and just keep doing what I’m doing.”

Koepka also alluded to a better mental attitude compared to early in the year.

“I couldn’t get my mind to free up, but I’m past that now,” Koepka said.

He certainly is. So focused was he this week he forgot a certain holiday.

Said Koepka, “I didn’t exactly get my dad a card, so this works.”

Around the Open

Koepka earned $2.16 million, a U.S. Open record, for the victory. Harman and Matsuyama each collected $1,050,012. Tommy Fleetwood, tied for the lead for seconds early on the front nine, finished at 11-under 277 and made $563,642. ... Gallery favorite Steve Stricker’s 3-under 69 for 5-under 283 tied him for 16th, making the 50-year-old the low Wisconsin native, and should sell tickets to his Champions Tour tournament this week at University Ridge in Madison. ... Scottie Scheffler was the low amateur, tying for 27th at 1-under 287. ... The course averaged 73.926 strokes on Sunday and 73.204 for the week. ... The United States Golf Association gave everyone on hand an Arnold Palmer commemorative pin upon entering, plus switched out the usual 18th hole flag for one with a silhouette of Palmer throwing his visor after winning the 1960 U.S. Open. ... Fox Sports managed to improve its coverage overall, but had several faux pau down the stretch, including an incorrect graphic when Rickie Fowler was on the 15th hole, deciding not to show an interview of Matsuyama because it was through a translator, and losing contact with Curtis Strange before he interviewed Koepka. Nobody told Strange to get his shadow out of Koepka’s face.

Tim Cronin

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