ERIN, Wis. – No less a personage than nine-time major champion Gary Player himself said that “the long bunker shot is the most difficult shot in golf.” How fitting it is then, that the 2017 U.S. Open was essentially sealed by Brooks Koepka with one of the most exquisite played in the recent annals of the tournament.
Clinging to a one-shot lead over plucky Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama, who closed with a brilliant 66 to reach 12 under, Koepka was in the front-right greenside bunker on Erin Hills’ 14th hole, the lip of which was easily 3 feet over 6-foot-tall. The pin was some 80 feet away, up a hill and across a ridge that essentially bisected this colossal green into two smaller greens.
The only thing the architects didn’t put on this green was a pen of man eating lions.
Koepka, who some call the coolest customer on the Tour right now, didn’t just put that bunker shot dead, he did it with backspin. The ball flew gently on its cushion of sand over the ridge, skid-bounced twice, passed by the pin close enough to give it a high five, then pulled back to the flag, stopping just three feet away.
Koepka made birdie from the deck of a sinking ship. Meanwhile one hole behind, Harman finally cracked, missing a short putt, and now Koepka was two shots clear of Matsuyama and three over Harman.
Koepka said later he also thought the par save on the par-3 13th gave him the confidence he needed, and it was a clutch putt, but the tournament was defined more by that bunker shot and that birdie. Now two shots clear, there was really only one dangerous hole left at Erin Hills, a heathland style-looking course, but one that requires the aerial attack since there are few open routes to the greens.
No. 15 at Erin Hills is a short-but-treacherous par 4, and it says more architecturally in its mere 288-346 yards than many architects can say in a 500-yard hole. You either try to drive the green and get the ball to stop in a tiny bowl – again, one small green is segmented into two or sometimes even three smaller one by severe contours – or you lay up with an iron and pitch up the hill. Now is the time for defensive golf. A miss here could put him in Erin’s fearsome fescue and bring double bogey into the equation.
“You've got to hit fairways out here, obviously. And when you're in the fairway, the fairway, only having such a short club in, you've got to hit the green,” Koepka said, and that’s exactly what he did – at 15 and pretty much everywhere else over the course of the four-day tournament. He laid up and then pitched up to the green, its pin clinging to an edge of a precipice.
“That second shot was unbelievable. That pin is hanging off the back and into the wind. It was pretty impressive, or I thought,” Koepka reflected candidly. “It was probably one of the best shots I've hit all week.”
We could have said that about nearly every shot we hit all week. Koepka put together a stat line that looks more like what you see out of a Quad Cities Open rather than the National Championship. On Championship Sunday of a U.S. Open he hit a staggering 17 greens. Only David Graham in 1981 at Merion hit more in a final round. Over the course of the week, Koepka went a whopping 62 of 72 and was first in the field in the all-important Greens in Regulation.
In the Mike Davis era, that’s how you win a U.S. Open.
Indeed, Koepka dominated this Open in almost every statistic. He was T-4 in driving accuracy, hitting 87.5% of his fairways for the week. And he putted the lights out. He had just one 3-putt in 72 holes – a la Jack Nicklaus at Oakmont in 1962, who only had one 3-putt in 90.
Of course Koepka made the 12-footer on 15 for birdie; it was center-cut all the way. And when he birdied the short par-3 16th with another hard-breaking right-to-left putt, suddenly he was at the magical figure of 16 under, the same all-time, U.S. Open record score-to-par Rory McIlroy posted at Congressional in 2011.
The tournament, in doubt just two holes earlier, was now a marker in golf history.
Koepka’s path to U.S. Open glory is one more young golfers should emulate. He had the talent to turn pro long before he did, but he stayed all four years at Florida State. He made All-American three times and won three events.
Then instead of going on the PGA Tour, he cut his teeth in Europe, forgoing the shot at the biggest bucks and the brightest stardom to learn a little bit at a time how to win – building a strong sturdy foundation for a long career.
“To go over there, I think it helped me grow up a little bit and really figure out that, hey, play golf, get it done, and then you can really take this somewhere,” Koepka explained. “And I built a lot of confidence off of that.”
The move paid off in a Turkish airlines Open win in 2014 that propelled him, finally, to the PGA Tour where he made an immediate impact, winning the 2015 Waste Management Open.
How cool is that? Your first win is in the crucible of Phoenix! They’re a tough crowd there. Miss a shot and you get roundly booed. Then they boo your fiends and family!
Koepka’s game – long tee shots and laser-beam iron play - is perfect for the U.S. Open, and it showed in his results even before this weekend. He was T-4 at Pinehurst in 2014, but we don’t remember that because Martin Kaymer ran over everyone with a truck that year. Koepka was T-18 at Chambers Bay in 2015 and T-13 last year at Oakmont. He played especially well on Sunday all three times, carding closing rounds of 71, 69 and 68.
He’s also contended in the last two PGA Championships, finishing T-4 at Whistling Straits in 2015 and T-5 last year at Baltusrol. His 3-1 2016 Ryder Cup record featured a 5&4 whipping of Masters Champion Danny Willett in singles and, paired with Brandt Snedeker, a 5&4 drubbing of Willett and Open Champion Henrik Stenson, as well a 3&2 win over Stenson and Matt Fitzpatrick.
Not only was this win “the matter of time” we were waiting for and should have seen coming, but he’s the blueprint of the kind of golfer who wins multiple U.S. Opens. He’s got Hale Irwin’s physique (Irwin was a linebacker n college; Koepka was a baseball player with a linebacker’s build). He’s got Irwin’s length, precision, icy demeanor on the golf course and killer instinct when he smells blood. Koepka also doesn’t make mental errors.
In all of those respects, he seems quite similar to a pre-scandal Tiger Woods as well.
“This week I don't think I ever got nervous, not at one point. I just stayed in the moment,” he stated. “And I thought that if I thought ahead, I was going to -- if I strayed from the game plan at all, I thought that's where things were going to go wayward and sideways.”
Steady, phlegmatic, focused: That’s a U.S. Open winner. A slow steady ascension, learning how to win by degrees: That might be the makings of a multiple U.S. Open winner.