ST. LOUIS — Can we pause just a moment before we get to the guy who finished second in the PGA Championship? Fine.
First, we need to fully appreciate what Brooks Koepka just did. We really do. That begins with understanding the heat-is-on world he survived on Sunday.
There was thunder up ahead of him, for Tiger Woods was reliving yesterday. And nothing on a golf course — absolutely nothing — could be louder than that. How did Koepka put it later? “You could hear a different roar every 30 seconds, so we knew what was going on. It’s pretty obvious when Tiger makes a birdie.” Or Woods’ playing partner, Gary Woodland? “The energy in that place was unbelievable.”
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Everywhere Koepka walked, Tigermania was in full fever on the other side of the ropes, thousands upon thousands frantic to see history. That included the guys in red shirts with the words, “Make Sunday great again.” And the throng at No. 18 that chanted, “Ti-ger! . . . Ti-ger! . . . Ti-ger!”
On every leaderboard — if Koepka ever looked as he walked past with the purpose of a bulldozer — someone was coming at him. Leaving No. 13, he had been caught by Adam Scott. But not for long.
All that makes a hard and treacherous landscape for a man in the lead on Sunday at a major. But none of that stopped him. Not the pressure, nor the humidity, nor Bellerive. Not even Woods shooting 64, the ground shaking with each of his eight birdies.
This was Tiger Woods’ crowd. Tiger Woods’ main stage. Tiger Woods’ unmistakable statement that there is still a lot he might be capable of doing. But he finished two shots behind. It was Brooks Koepka’s PGA Championship. “It kind of pushes you to step up your game,” Koepka said after he held off Woods. “Because you know he’s right there if you fall.”
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Will he endure the same fate as he has before? Will his accomplishment still not keep him from somehow being . . . undervalued? Is it even possible, that his star power is missed? The sounds and sights on the 72nd hole were interesting. Koepka received a nice and heartfelt ovation when he tapped in for a par to clinch the third major championship of his life and his second in two months. But it was nothing compared to the explosion that came 20 minutes before when Woods birdied. And so it went.
Koepka is more strong than dashing. More ice than fire. More iron will than marquee glow. And the universe of golf is so anxious for a Woods revival, a day like this was bound to be one of raging emotions. As of Sunday, it had been more than 10 years — 3,709 days — since his last major victory. The drama from the chance of his comeback leading to the PGA title was irresistible.
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“I didn’t even know if I was going to play golf again,” he said afterward.
“I think other than me, my team, everybody was rooting for Tiger,” Koepka said. “As they should.”
But there was more to Sunday’s narrative. What must not be overlooked is . . .
That Koepka has won three of the past seven majors. He might not be a force on the regular PGA Tour, but put the Wanamaker or U.S. Open trophy in front of him, and he turns into a monster. Three of his four Tour victories are majors. “For some reason,” he said, “the majors get my attention.”
That Koepka just won the PGA and U.S. Open in the same season, and the only other four men to do that are Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen. How‘s that for an exclusive club membership?
That while the assembled masses were in delirium over Woods’ 64 — and no wonder — Koepka was putting up his own 66. With the Sunday heat on high, he played the last 12 holes in 5-under par, without one bogey.
“I have a lot of self-belief,” he said. “I knew, even today when everybody was making their charge, if I just hung in there, made one more shot, one good shot at a time, kept it rolling, I knew I was going to have a chance to separate myself maybe a little bit.”
Care for some examples of his toughness?
He was standing over a birdie putt on No. 8, when the wave of noise from Woods’ birdie on No. 9 swept over him. “Everybody’s roaring. I’m like, all right, just make this one and try to get through that.” Which he did.
Standing on the tee at par-3 No. 16, he had both Woods and Scott still peering over his shoulder. He needed to make something happen. He did. Birdie. “That will probably go down as one of the best shots I’ve ever hit under pressure," he said of his shot to the green.
His road to this high place in golf is a compelling story on its own. He first started playing the game after he was badly injured in an auto accident at the age of 10, and the doctor said no contact sports for a while. Now he’s 28 and piling up majors. Sunday, he out-dueled two major champions he grew up rooting for. “Surreal, that’s all I can say,” he said of that scenario. “I don’t think I ever dreamed of that.”
His wrist was injured so badly this season, he missed Augusta. He came back to win two majors. “Looking where I was, sitting on my couch watching the Masters, and to think I would do this, I would have laughed at you,” he said.
Will Sunday finally mean he gets his full due?
“I hope so," he said.
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If the public has not properly caught on to what Koepka has become in exactly 100 PGA Tour starts, his competitors understand.
This from Woods: “He couldn’t make a bunch of pars and win the golf tournament. He didn’t do it. He went out there and made a bunch of birdies. He’s a tough guy to beat when he’s hitting it 340 in the air.”
This from Scott: “If I was him, I wouldn’t change much at the moment. I’d just keep doing what he’s been doing, because he’s showing up at the right moments in the biggest events. I can see he’s got that mindset. There’s something inside his brain that makes him believe that that’s what he’s destined to do.”
That sounds a lot like the man who finished second on Sunday. Woods was asked how he felt after finishing two strokes back. “Tired and hungry,” he said. Presumably, he meant for dinner. Or did he mean for the 15th major that now the world will truly think he can win one day?
This new reason to believe in Tiger Woods is a shining legacy from the 100th PGA Championship. But so is the man who was holding the Wanamaker Trophy Sunday night.