FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – It is not always birdie barrages that help build a legacy. Sometimes it is the stubborn insistence to survive, against the gale-force adversity that can attack a man in golf, without warning.
That gets remembered, too. It will for Brooks Koepka.
2019 PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: Final scores | Purse | History
He won his fourth major in 23 months Sunday, so let the discussion of greatness and dominance begin. Only four other golfers have done that, and their last names are Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods. What a gated community. And had the PGA Championship been the Sunday stroll so many expected, well, that would have been an impressive enough entry into the neighborhood. A few more birdies, a yawner to the finish line, and everyone could have extolled his talent, his strength, and the way he torched a feared golf course, and the competition with it.
Would that have been enough to finally put Koepka's name in the brightest lights, where he belongs? Maybe. Probably. It is baffling that it is not there already. “I don’t think I even thought I was going to do it that fast,” he said when it was over Sunday night. “I don’t think anybody did.”
But there is something about a man standing on a tee, teetering on infamy. Or walking the fairways while the New York crowd – smelling blood from a wounded and fading favorite – bellowing for the opponent, in only the no-holds-barred way a New York crowd fan. And then him somehow drawing comfort from being a target, as Koepka certainly was by the back nine Sunday.
“D.J! D.J! D.J!” Those were the roars of Bethpage Black, as Dustin Johnson shaved off stroke after stroke, until a seven-shot lead had become one. It was amid such noise, that Koepka had to save himself. We knew how firm his resolve. Sunday, we found out the thickness of his skin.
Four bogeys in a row on the back nine, five in seven holes. Koepka was accumulating bogeys faster than major championships. But he won the audience over in the end. The public loves comebacks, but it also has a thing for narrow escapes, and this was one for the ages, on a golf course that had turned so mean in the wind. One man in the final 12 pairings – Johnson – broke par Sunday. The final three groups of six leaders went 32-over. Repeat, 32-over.
This was mass scorecard suffering. Poor Harold Varner III played in the final group for one of the most exhilarating moments of his career and shot 81. He even lost a ball, which Koepka tried to help find. A leader in a major walking through the woods helping his playing partner search for a golf ball . . . now there’s something you don’t see every day.
So Koepka’s 74 hardly looks like a number to cherish, but it was.
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In a way, Sunday’s strange journey for Koepka began an hour before tee time, walking to the practice range, a runaway leader with a seven-shot cushion. Nobody had ever lost a lead so large in the final round, not in the history of the PGA Tour. The fans were shouting various forms of encouragement, one loud voice with an unmistakable New York feel to it could be heard above everyone else.
“Brooks . . . don’t’ blow it!”
Five hours later, he stood by the scoring tent, an exhausted champion who had tip-toed around a golf abyss.
“I’m just glad we didn’t have any more holes to play,” he said. “I know for a fact that was the most excited I’ve been in my life ever there on 18.”
Koepka is a devoted practitioner of tunnel-vision, but certainly he had to be aware of the onrushing train that was Dustin Johnson, and the crowd rolling with him. “They were definitely out there and on my side,” Johnson said.
Varner, playing with Koepka, would later say, “I thought it was pretty weird how they were telling Brooks to choke. That’s not my cup of tea. I was pulling for him after that. I have a few choice words for that.”
So Koepka knew exactly what was happening.
“How could I not, with the D.J. chants?” Koepka said. “I heard everything.”
Surely, that must have included his own heartbeat. He had said Saturday night that his pulse on the course of a major is pretty close to that sitting on his couch at home. But on No. 14, after a fourth consecutive bogey, he did not have the look of a man who was watching the series finale of The Big Bang Theory.
He had just spent what he called an “interesting hour” with the four bogeys in a row. By No. 14, the burden of trying to protect such a big lead had become very real. “Every time you make a bogey you’re kind of thinking, 'I’m bringing everybody back, I’m bringing everybody back'. Why am I doing this? What’s going on? I don’t want to say it’s a panic, but it’s definitely a shock.”
That’s what he repeated about No. 14. “I was in shock of what was going on.”
Know what might have saved him? The taunts and pro-Johnson chants from the gallery. Rather than anger him, he turned them into a second wind.
“It’s New York. What do you expect when you’re half-choking it away? I think I kind of deserved it. I’ve been to sporting events in New York, I know how it goes.
“It actually kind of helped, to be honest with you. I think it helped me kind of refocus and hit a good one down 15. I think that was probably the best thing that could have happened. It was at a perfect time because I was just thinking, all right, I’ve got everybody against me. Let’s go.”
Two clutch drives led to two stop-the-bleeding pars. Up ahead, the Johnson surge had run out of steam, especially when he hit his second shot over the No. 16 green that led to a bogey. More treachery from the wind perhaps. He had worried about being short.
“Just don’t know how it flew 200 yards into the wind like that," Johnson said. Well, the wind was on the gusty side. Maybe he just picked a calm moment to hit it. Or maybe the gods of golf decided Brooks Koepka finally deserved a break.
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Johnson had done some astonishing things, and there was no better example than No. 15. That hole was the toughest of the week; there were only 39 birdies the entire tournament. Johnson birdied it all four days.
So Johnson made a fine foil in this Koepka saga, as did Bethpage Black, who got its pound of golfing flesh on the final day.
Amid all this unexpected turmoil, it could not be overlooked just how unprecedented the final result. Koepka is the first man ever to concurrently hold back-to-back U.S. Open and PGA titles. He is often just one of the crowd at regular PGA Tour events, but open the gates for a major, and he’s the guy making the ground shake.
“We can start talking about the next real dominant player perhaps,” said Graeme McDowell, who offered a thought on what has led to the Age of Koepka. “You can’t teach somebody to think the way that Brooks Koepka thinks. I wish I could think that way – use negativity the way he’s able to use it. Tiger was very different from that. He didn’t seem to need negativity. He could go to a different place mentally than the rest of us could go, but Brooks gets himself there via the negative comments he gets from people.”
Or in this case, maybe the chants from the crowd. Not to mention the sense of what he could have heard. You want negative comments? Blow a seven-shot lead in a major on Sunday.
"I’m glad I’ve got this thing sitting next to me,” Koepka said afterward, with the Wanamaker Trophy. “This is definitely the most satisfying of all the ones I’ve won.”
An unflappable and supposedly uncatchable leader suddenly could not make a par. A Sunday that began with the feel of a coronation, suddenly flirted with unimaginable defeat. This PGA Championship had no hint of high drama, until it did. That was the trial of Brooks Koepka Sunday; the kind that can take a man up another level. And he’s pretty up there already.