Underrated Koepka goes for U.S. Open-PGA double

Writing from Town and Country, Missouri

Saturday, August 21, 2018

When Brooks Koepka won last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills, he received acclaim, but some reserved endorsing his accomplishment. Their thought was that the course was so wide, and Koepka had such length off the tee, his wasn’t a traditional U.S. Open victory.

Then Koepka went and won this year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, a course that demands both strength and subtlety. That turned most of the nay-sayers into endorsers. Not only had Koepka become the first to win back-to-back National Opens, he’d collected the second at one of America’s signature courses.

If Koepka wins the 100th PGA Championship on Sunday – and he leads the scrap at soggy Bellerive Country Club by two entering the final round thanks to his third-round 4-under 66 for 12-under 198 – he’ll have won three of the last seven major championships, and with a wrist injury limiting his play the first half of this year.

There would be no argument against the quality of that accomplishment.

Koepka is chasing the first U.S. Open-PGA double since Tiger Woods’ doing so in 2000 (along with the British Open, and finally the 2001 Masters for the grand slam). He leads Adam Scott by two strokes after Scott’s 5-under 65 for 10-under 200, and is three ahead of Jon Rahm (66), Rickie Fowler (69) and Gary Woodland, who led the first two rounds but slipped to a 71 on Saturday. There are 11 players, including defending champion Justin Thomas, within four strokes, and 14 within five – with British Open champion Francesco Molinari lurking that far in arrears.

“Stay in the moment, that’s the big thing,” Koepka said of how to go about his business. “There’s a lot of star power (on top) and it should be. It’s a major championship. That’s what’s going to make this event very exciting to watch tomorrow.”

Koepka only hit nine fairways in the third round, but made the most of it. That’s why he was hitting driver on the first hole, for instance, when Woodland and Kevin Kisner, with whom he played on Saturday afternoon, were laying up.

“I don’t see anything but driver,” Koepka said. “With Zoysia fairways the ball’s not really going to roll out anyways, and especially with a wet golf course.”

Which, despite a sunny day and a high of 88 degrees, it still is. The wind was negligible until late in the round, which means the moisture in the ground is staying there. That plays into the hands of the big hitters, and Koepka qualifies.

“All you have to do is put it in the fairway and you’re fine.” Koepka said.

And scramble like a demon, which he has. Oh, and putt. Koepka’s only needed 81 putts so far, only 50 in the last 36 holes. Of the main contenders, Scott’s rolled it 86 times, Rahm 91, Fowler 89, Woodland 83, Woods 86 and Cink 84. If Koepka keeps that up, the Wanamaker trophy and the $1.98 million that goes with it will be his.

However, he’s not ready to lift the 34-pound prize yet, and not because he’s taking easy at the gym, which he visits every available morning, including Sunday morning.

“With so many big names,you would expect two or three of them to really make a run, get off to a good start and challenge me,” Koepka said. “They’re names I’ve grown up watching that everybody else loves to watch play.”

Koepka accomplished his 66 with a penalty stroke for slapping a tee shot against a tree on the 15th hole, which set up a second straight bogey.

“I don’t know how it got behind that tree with so many people,” Koepka said. “It was impressive it ended up there. But you just get on with it.”

He built his lead on an outward 5-under 30, which ballooned to five strokes when Woodland triple-bogeyed the par-4 10th, and a birdie on the par-5 17th kept him ahead of the faster-closing Scott.

“I’ve driven it well,” Scott said. “That’s tricked down into my irons, and I’ve putted well. All around, everything’s looking real solid. But I need a great day tomorrow. It’s a stacked leader board.”

That it is, and while Scott doesn’t look out of place, his Masters win and No. 1 ranking is a distant memory. He’s No. 76 this week, in the PGA for that reason alone.

“When it’s bunched like this, it comes down to the guy who makes a couple of putts when he’s in position,” Scott said.

Rahm, the fiery Spaniard, hasn’t had any blowups this week, which he credits to a new mental attitude. His bogey-free 66 didn’t hurt either.

“I’ve been doing a lot of mental work,” Rahm said. “I think I’m more balanced, hence the bogey-free rounds. I decided to stop complaining – act more like an adult would. Thursday (when he shot 68), it was a really big effort. Yesterday (67), it was a massive effort on a couple of holes. It hasn’t been easy.”

The payoff could be enormous. The same would be true for Fowler. His Players Championship title is great, but doesn’t have that major patina in the eyes of most people. But winning it as he did, racing from behind, may pay off double on Sunday. In his mind, he’s been there.

“It’s how confident I’ll feel tomorrow compared to four or five years ago,” Fowler said of his outlook for Sunday. “But I’ve got to play better than I did today, that’s for sure.”

And by the by, Woods climbed back into the ring on Saturday. First he finished off a second-round 66, then posted a like score that featured a 4-under 31 on the front side and nine straight pars coming in, including a three-putt par on the 550-yard 17th after landing on the green in two. However, that was good enough to lift him from a tie for 19th to a tie for sixth at 8-under 202, and thus into Sunday’s fourth from last twosome.

“I gave myself a chance,” said Woods, who was followed by an enormous percentage of the 45,000-plus who jammed Bellerive and produced Augustaesque roars when Woods was galloping around the front nine. “I played 29 holes, dropped three shots and two of those were three-putts. I just wish I could have got myself a couple shots closer to the lead. But there aren’t too many guys in front of me.

“I’m tired. The 29 holes, it’s not physical, it’s mental.”

The final four pairings: Stewart Cink (201), whose 66 moved him into contention for a second career major, and Jason Day (202), who won the PGA three years ago at Whistling Straits, at 1:25 p.m.; Woodland and Woods at 1:35 p.m.; Fowler and Rahm, each pursuing their first major, at 1:45 p.m.; and finally Koepka and Scott at 1:55 p.m.

Fowler, the most notable player yet to score one of the four traditional majors, is being hampered, sort of, by a strained oblique muscle, but his swing doesn’t seem impacted. He said it didn’t get any worse in the third round, but will it allow him to snap the tie with Rahm and Woodland, climb past Scott and take on Koepka? His Players win came from off the pace when nobody was looking.

Sunday, people will be looking.

Around the PGA

Jordan Spieth, seeking to capture the career grand slam with a victory, had closed within lurking distance of the leaders mid-round with four birdies on his last five holes of the front nine. Then he sailed his tee shot on the par-4 12th hole to the right and watched it bounce off a cart path into a woody refuge. He had 205 yards to the hole and decided to go for it, using a 5-iron. His shot hit a tree, then another, and caromed out of bounds. That led to a triple-bogey 7 and knocked him back in the pack, from a tie for ninth to a tie for 27th by day’s end. “It was just a perfect storm,” Spieth said. “I should have hit 6- or 7-iron and gone for the front of the green. The gap (between trees) was wider higher up.” ... Woods was among the players who lauded the galleries, calling them “unbelievable. Hopefully, we can come back soon.” Koepka said he’d never seen so many people on a golf course for a major as he has this week. ... The 80-player field after the cut scored 69.500 on the par-70 layout, lowing the week’s average to 70.286. A similar day on Sunday and this would be the first PGA Championship where the field beat the course. ... Matt Wallace aced the 232-yard 16th hole with a 7-iron, and threw the ball to the gallery after he picked it out of the cup and kissed it.

Tim Cronin

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