Crafty Koepka captures classic PGA

Writing from Town and Country, Mo.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Brooks Koepka can shed the Rodney Dangerfield no-respect tag forever now.

He’s a force in golf, and with three major championships in his pocket, has an inside track to the World Golf Hall of Fame.

And Tiger Woods confirmed he can play championship golf again.

Those are the twin lead stories to come out of the 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club, and if it sounds like that’s slighting Koepka, who has collected those three majors, including the last two U.S. Opens, in just six starts, consider what he says about what others think:

“I don’t care about what anybody else says. You’re going to have fans and you’re going to have people who hate you,” Koepka said after grabbing the tournament by the throat on the last four holes, and thus grabbing the Wanamaker Trophy as well.

He has more of the former than the latter now, whether he knows it or not. Thousands hung around for the trophy ceremony, which is usually conducted to the taillights of the gallery.

Koepka’s 4-under-par 66 for a PGA-record 16-under 264 was good for a two-stroke victory over Woods, whose 6-under 64 electrified the gallery of approximately 50,000 and coaxed millions to television screens around the world.

However, the numbers don’t really tell the story. Koepka and Woods both battled their way around a Bellerive course that stiffened somewhat as the day went on. Koepka snapped a tie with fellow competitor Adam Scott with 10- and six-foot birdie putts on the 15th and 16th holes after Scott had birdied five of seven holes to climb into a tie at 14-under.

Woods then battled his way within a stroke, and would have tied Koepka on the back nine but for a would-be birdie putt that was a quarter-turn short of falling in on the par-4 11th and a bogey on the par-4 14th. (Not hitting a fairway on the front nine and still scoring 3-under 32 was a push, but Woods rued his erratic tee game during and after the round.)

His chance to make history, returning to glory from the back injury that threatened his ability to walk, much less play golf, was finally thwarted by a hazard-inducted par on the par-5 17th, but he birdied the last, draining a 20-footer, to break a tie with Scott and take solo second. Scott finished at 13-under 267 with his 3-under 67.

Koepka, 28, beat two childhood favorites in Woods and Scott, which added to the flavor of the day.

“When I watched Adam win at the Players (in 2004), I was so mad when he hit it into the water, probably as mad as he was,” Koepka said. “And Tiger, he’s why all of us all play. I don’t think I ever dreamed I’d be playing against them.”

He was, and he outplayed them. All week, Koepka had generally kept the ball in play – hit the fairway, hit the green, hit the hole – while driving it over the horizon. That’s a splendid combination. Woods noticed as much in a practice round.

“It’s tough to catch Brooksie when he’s hitting it 340 (yards) down the middle,” Woods said. “At Shinnecock, he was just bombing it, and he’s doing it here. And he’s making putts. Doing that, he’s tough to beat.”

When he missed, he missed long, making recovering for par possible. Koepka double-bogeyed the sixth hole in the first round and had only four bogeys, back to back in each of the last two rounds, the rest of the way.

The bogeys on the fourth and fifth holes brought defending champion Justin Thomas briefly into a tie for the lead, but Koepka never relinquished a share. Thomas slid back with bogeys on the 14th and 16th holes. Scott failed to convert chances after climbing to 14-under on the 13th, notably at the par-5 17th when he slid a six-foot downhill putt past the hole.

Koepka kept steady of mind even when missing birdie chances at No. 12, 13 and 14. His 12-foot birdie on the 15th pushed him to 15-under, and the follow-up 6-footer on No. 16 for 16-under and a two-stroke lead effectively cued the engraver.

“I had the momentum coming off 13,” Scott said. “When I missed that putt on No. 15, and he was putting after me (and made birdie) ... you know, there are huge moments in tournaments.”

Scott saw it as the turning point.

“I had a chip (for birdie) on 16 and a putt on 17 and didn’t make it,” Scott said. “That was my last hurrah. It would have made it interesting.”

Woods’ day-long adventure made it very interesting. They sold everything in the Bellerive merchandise tent but earplugs, and those were necessary, so loud were the galleries for Woods to do something.

He did plenty. Eight birdies. No fairways hit until the 10th hole. Out in 32. Visions of an 18th major championship (15th as a professional) dancing in the humid air. That turned out to be  a mirage, but for one brief shining moment, Bellerive was Camelot.

Woods’ run brought to mind the charge Jack Nicklaus made to win the 1986 Masters, only his time, the fairy tale didn’t have the dramatic ending. Four strokes off the pace at the start, Woods went out in 3-under 32 and was only a stroke back after piling a birdie on the 13th hole on top of one at the 12th.

“The golf course was soft, it was gettable, and I had to go get it,” Woods said. “I tried.”

Woods eventually hit five of seven fairways on the back nine but only matched his 3-under 32 from the front. That millimeters-short putt on the 11th and the lip-out when trying to save par on the 14th were the difference between runner-up and a playoff with Koepka.

As it was, Woods all but brought the house down.

“These fans were all so positive, I can’t thank them enough,” Woods said.

Koepka – remember him? – concurred.

“You could hear roars on 10 and 11 9 (for Woods), and they would trickle down across the course as they changed the leader boards, every three seconds,” Koepka said. “The loudest road came when I was over my putt on No. 8. Did he birdie 9?”

Oh yes, did he.

“When he did it was incredible.”

Then Koepka made some noise of his own, sinking that birdie putt, as he had the one on No. 7, as he would the one on No. 9, to go out in 2-under 33. Eventually, the throng that came to cheer Woods saluted him as well.

“I’ve never seen this many people at a golf tournament,” Koepka said. “I don’t even know what to say, there were so many.”

Years from now, many who were here will even remember Brooks Koepka was the winner.

Full house again Sunday

One of the more impressive aspects of the week was the gallery. It was obvious the thousands who poured into Bellerive each day were thrilled to be at a major championship from the way they acted. In four days on the course and watching television coverage – a writer tends to gravitate to the screen since the production can be at many places at once – only a couple of “baba booey” yells were heard. This, with perhaps 45,000 to 55,000 on hand each day. It was more like a Masters gallery, with everyone at Augusta National on their best behavior lest they get thrown out and banned for life.

Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson said he’d never seen so many people at a major championship – though Doug wasn’t yet on the beat when the Masters sold an unlimited number of practice round tickets. The crowds here compared to the big final-round crowds for the Western Open at Cog Hill when Greg Norman or Woods was leading or stalking the leader and over 50,000 would turn out on Sunday. And the 45,000-square foot PGA merchandise tent was mobbed, sometimes with admission allowed only when someone left.

In our experience, only the final round of the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club, when vendors were told to be ready for 65,000 fans, appeared to be measurably larger than any of the four tournament days here.

Around the PGA

Koepka won $1.98 million, Woods $1.188 million from the purse of $11 million. Stewart Cink and Jon Rahm, who briefly threatened, tied for fourth at 11-under 269. ... Koepka is the fifth player to win the U.S. Open in the same year, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Woods. ... With the schedule change, Koepka will defend his PGA title next May at Bethpage Black before defending the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June. ... Illinois graduate and European Tour standout Thomas Pieters made a run, and was 6-under for the day when he double-bogeyed the par-5 17th hole, hitting two shots into the creek that meanders down the right side. That killed his chance at an upset and landed him in a tie for sixth at 10-under 270. He still shot 66. ... Ben Kern, the lone club pro to make the cut of the 20 in the field, scored even-par 70 on Sunday for 3-under 277 and finished tied for 43rd. ... Rickie Fowler teed it up on Sunday, but nothing happened. He scored 1-over 71 for 8-under 272 and tied for 12th. ... The field averaged 69.338 strokes on Sunday, and 70.125, barely over par, for the week. ... The U.S. Ryder Cup standings didn’t change among the top eight, who are now locked in, but Woods gave every reason to captain Jim Furyk to select him next month.

Tim Cronin

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