By Adam Schupak
On the practice-putting green before the final round of the 100th PGA Championship, instructor Claude Harmon III and caddie Ricky Elliott teased Brooks Koepka about his final round pairing with Adam Scott.
“You have a serious man crush on him,” Harmon said.
“Don’t be taking selfies with him on the first tee,” Elliott said. “It’s not going to look cool.”
Scott, the 38-year-old Australian who won the 2013 Masters among 14 PGA Tour titles, was Koepka’s childhood idol. He remembers watching Scott win the 2004 Players Championship despite hitting his approach into the water at 18.
“I was probably as mad as he was,” Koepka recalled. “I was rooting so hard.”
Scott wasn’t the only one of Koepka’s heroes who tried to chase him down on Sunday at Bellerive Country Club. So, too, was a rejuvenated Tiger Woods, the golfer that inspired Koepka to play the game.
“That’s the whole reason that all of us, or people in my generation, are even playing golf was because of him,” Koepka said. “And to duel it out with them, it’s pretty neat. I don’t think I ever dreamed of that situation that I was in today.”
Surreal is the word he used to describe it. On a day that defending PGA champion Justin Thomas caught him early on the front nine, Woods closed within one and Scott tied him with four holes to go, Koepka never buckled en route to shooting 4-under 66 for a two-stroke victory over Woods.
It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that this looked to be a lost year for Koepka when he partially tore a tendon in his left wrist late last year and was sidelined for four months in a soft cast up to his elbow.
“Most of us thought it would be a career-threatening injury,” said Harmon III.
Koepka watched the Masters from his couch, and didn’t hit a golf ball until Monday after Augusta. Then he re-injured his wrist in a freak accident at the Players.
His warm-up session before the first round at the Players consisted of hitting lob wedges off a tee. Three days later, he shot 63. A month later, he defended his title at the US Open. Yet even after the victory, Koepka has continued his Rodney Dangerfeld “I get no respect” act.
“He’s the reigning US Open champion and didn’t get one media request after shooting 1 under on Thursday,” Harmon III said, “and if you guys think that goes unnoticed, it doesn’t. So thanks.”
Koepka blitzed the course on Friday, tying a PGA Championship record of 63 and followed it up with 66 to claim the 54-hole lead. How good was he playing? Woods may have put it best: “It’s tough to beat when the guy hits it 340 down the middle.”
Koepka oozed confidence heading into the PGA after leading the field in several statistical categories at last week’s WGC Bridgestone Invitational, and said he struck the ball as well as he ever had. All he needed was a slight adjustment to his putting.
“Claude didn’t say one word to me this week I was hitting it that good,” Koepka said. “He just stood behind me and was like, ‘Yup, that’s perfect.’ And we just worked on some putting and that was it and making sure my head stayed still.”
But 13 players on a stacked leaderboard, including seven major champions, started the final round within five strokes of Koepka. Elliott, a native of Portrush and former Irish Boys’ champion, advised Koepka to “play like you’re losing.”
“In our mind, someone was going to get to 14, 15, 16 under so we had to play like we were behind right from the start,” Elliott said.
Thomas made a valiant charge early, but his putter let him down and he closed in 2-under 70 to finish in a tie for sixth. Then came Woods, who didn’t hit a fairway until the 10th hole, but it didn’t seem to matter. Koepka heard the roars for Tiger. He said the loudest of them all was after Woods made birdie at the ninth to turn in 32. Despite struggling with his golf swing, Woods made birdies at Nos. 12 and 13 to close within one stroke of the lead.
He horseshoed a 10-foot par putt at 14, but answered by stuffing his approach from 164 yards at 15. Still one back. He squandered an opportunity at the par-5 17th when his drive flared right into a hazard and he could only manage to make par. That essentially ended his hopes of winning his first major in 10 years and first tournament of any kind since 2013. But in typical Tiger fashion, he capped off his round with a birdie at 18 for a final-round 64, his lowest score at a major.
Meanwhile, Scott birdied five holes in a seven-hole stretch between Nos. 7 and 13 to tie Koepka at 14 under. That’s when Koepka showed the resolve of a champion. He made birdie at 15 to reclaim the lead and drilled a 4-iron at the 247-yard par-3, 16th that never left the flag.
He rolled in the short putt and finished at 16-under 264. In doing so, Koepka became the fifth player to win the US Open and PGA Championship in the same year.
Woods shot 66-64 on the weekend, yet remains stuck on 14 majors. He is the victim of his own success, having taught this generation of Dustin Johnson, Thomas and Koepka to be athletes and swing hard and play with abandon and now they all do that. The gap has narrowed significantly from a physical skills standpoint. Koepka is built like a linebacker, able to bench 225 pounds 14 times before the final round of the U.S. Open, and has the touch around the greens of a thief working in daylight. (He ranked second in scrambling this week.)
“To me, he’s the epitome of what modern golf is,” Harmon III said.
It’s scary to think he’s won three majors and he’s just 28. Could it be the start of the Koepka era?
“I’m excited for the next few years,” Koepka said. “I mean Tiger’s come back. You look at what Dustin’s doing, Justin, Rory, Spieth — I mean it’s a great time to be a golf fan. I can’t wait to duel it out with them over the next couple of year or next however long.”