SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Brooks Koepka may have won the trophy again, and Tommy Fleetwood might have won the hearts of golfers everywhere with his tournament record-tying 63 and rock-star hair, but Shinnecock Hills won the 118th U.S. Open.
As it should be; at a truly great U.S. Open, the course is always the star.
Koepka became the first repeat U.S. Open Champion since Curtis Strange turned the trick in 1988 and 1989 (at the Country Club in Brookline and Oak Hill, for those of you scoring at home). In doing so, he joins a list of back-to-back winners that reads like a Pantheon of the game’s greats. Ben Hogan won two U.S. Opens in a row in 1950 and 1951, at Merion and Oakland Hills. Hogan, as everyone knows, shares the record for most U.S. Open titles in history with Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson with four.
While Nicklaus never won any of his titles consecutively, Jones and Anderson did, both in spectacular fashion. Jones won in 1929 at Winged Foot in a playoff, then again in 1930 at Interlachen in Minnesota en route to completing the calendar Grand Slam. Jones’s Slam was saved when the approach shot he played to the ninth green in the final round skipped across the broad lake and onto the apron.
Anderson, meanwhile, is the only golfer to ever win three consecutive U.S. Open titles from 1903-1905. He also won in 1901. Koepka will have a chance to equal that feat next year at Pebble Beach, when it hosts the Open on the 100th anniversary of the golf course.
Two other players won back-to-back titles: Ralph Guldahl in 1937-38 at Oakland Hills and Cherry Hills, and John McDermott in 1911-12 at Chicago Golf Club and Country Club of Buffalo. Guldahl also won the Masters in 1939, while McDermott was the first American champion of the event.
“It's incredible. I looked at all these names a million times, it felt like, last year,” Koepka recalled gratefully. “Just looking at everybody. To have my name on there twice is pretty incredible, and to go back to back is even more extraordinary. It feels so special. I'm truly honored.”
Koepka joins that list of immortals with impressive credentials himself. It is impossible to overstate how gutsy his closing 68 was, forged by hair-raising up-and-downs all around the back nine. He miraculously saved bogey from the deck of a sinking ship on 11, then added high-wire, death-defying par saves at 12 and 14 before another phenomenal pitch and putt gave him a birdie at the par-5 16th and a two-shot cushion at the time over Fleetwood, who watched from the player’s locker room with his infant son on his lap.
That pitch was the defining shot of the tournament. With the chance to slam the door shut, Koepka delivered. He survived a closing bogey at 18 to finish at 1-over 281 for the tournament.
“I thought it might be one short,” Fleetwood lamented to a gaggle of journalists sitting around the television with him.
After some of the recoveries Koepka pulled off, he ought to go on tour with illusionist David Copperfield. Short-sided? Green running away from him? Pin located amidst a sea of heaving contours or on the edge of a precipice with a 40-yard drop-off lurking? No problem! Just flop and drop, then roll in the 10-to-12-footer like it was a Sunday Nassau with the pals at Lido or the Knoll Club. Koepka may have won last year’s U.S. Open with his driver, bludgeoning Erin Hills like a butcher tenderizing a steak, but he won this Open with his iron play, wedge and putter. For the week he finished T-55th in driving accuracy (64 percent). He was T-4th last year. But Koepka finished T-4 in both greens in regulation and putting, and that’s the combination that wins in the Mike Davis set-up era.
“I felt like I made those clutch 8-to-10-footers that you need to make to kind of keep the ball, keep the momentum going. And I felt like, you know, we didn't drive it that great, but you can make up so much with a hot putter,” Koepka said. “The great bogey I made at 11, I think that was big because, from where we were, I want to say I would have taken double when we were in jail. You can't miss it there. To make that big of a mistake, you just want to walk away with bogey. Luckily, that putt went in, and that built some momentum coming down the stretch and made me feel a little bit better with the putter.”
For the moment, Koepka’s career arc mirrors that of Andy North – also a two-time U.S. Open winner, but with only one other PGA Tour victory. In North’s case the Greater Greensboro Open, for Koepka, the Phoenix tour stop, the Waste Management Phoenix Open. But Koepka also played and won on the European Tour and European Challenge Tour, and he is much younger than North was when Andy won in 1978 and 1985. There is a good chance we will see more majors from him, and therein lies the next quantum leap for his career arc: to go from today’s hot golfer to a Hall of Famer with longevity.
There are three strata of two-time U.S. Open winners: There’s North, Retief Goosen, and Lee Janzen – guys that won two U.S. Opens, but not much else. Then there’s guys like Payne Stewart and Ernie Els, multiple major winners and Hall of Famers. And then there’s the immortals: Lee Trevino, Billy Casper, Julius Boros, Dr. Cary Middlecoff, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen.
Koepka is only 28 years old. He’s as strong as an ox, yet he’s got a high golf IQ -- higher than his good buddy DJ, that’s for sure. He looks for all the world to have staying power.
Now Koepka gets the chance to pull off the equally rare U.S. Open-Open Championship double. Carnoustie awaits, and it fits him perfectly. It’s brutally long; the rough is as gnarly and nasty as Shinnecock. And there are penalty strokes lurking everywhere: water, trench bunkers, out of bounds. Scorecards will look like a phone number. It’s perfect for a tough guy bruiser like Koepka that can balance the brutish length and rough with the soft hands needed to score well with the short game. That would be the next transcendent step, that or three consecutive Opens.
“A U.S. Open is always going to be a tough test of golf. I enjoy that; that's fun. The Open Championship, I think suits me very well,” he said knowingly.
Perhaps the niftiest bit of Koepka’s prestidigitation was that he won the Open after flirting with the cut line. At 7-over for the first 25 holes of the tournament, Koepka fired six birdies in 11 holes and a rousing 66 to rise from the nether-reaches of the scoreboard and a possible early exit and vault into contention. He didn’t win the tournament on Friday, but he miraculously saved it.
Shinnecock pulled off some pretty good magic tricks of its own: It sawed saw Phil Mickelson in half, pulled Tommy Fleetwood out of a hat, and made Tiger Woods disappear. Fleetwood is loved wherever he plays because his demeanor, looks and hair all match his swashbuckling golf. Looking like he’s auditioning for the role of D’Artagnan or one or the Three Musketeers, the fencing-epee-thin Fleetwood is a birdie machine, far more mercurial than fellow countryman Justin Rose, the model of consistency. He carded eight birdies against one bogey and equaled the tournament record held by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller, Vijay Singh and Justin Thomas. That’s rare air, more so because only Miller did it on a Sunday.
Meanwhile of all scalps to claim, no one on Planet Earth would have thought that it would be Phil Mickelson who would find the hiss of the media turned against him. I agree with the USGA: The penalty for hitting a moving ball is two strokes. I get the detractors who point to Phil’s interview and shout “Intent! Unfair advantage! DQ!” But then we get two different rules, one for Tour players and one for the rest of us, who don’t have to face a hungry media scrum feeding a 24-hour news cycle to a waiting Internet mob. The less we have of that in golf, the better.
That being said, Phil could have talked to us on Sunday.
Finally, to everyone needlessly lambasting the USGA for “too tough” on Saturday and “too easy” on Sunday: lighten up. There’s one critical difference between 2018 and 2004. In 2004 people complained about the conditions on Saturday, and the USGA did nothing. In 2018 people complained about the conditions on Saturday and the USGA listened. They got it letter perfect: tough, but score-able. It was a sterling venue producing a terrific champion and a fantastic tournament.
The members seem pleased.
“The USGA did a phenomenal job!” texted Member 1. "So proud to be a member, so proud to have been asked to host the tournament, so proud of the way the course held up, and so proud for all the stirring history that was made.”
“Best Shinnecock Open ever,” gushed Member 2. “She looked great and played better. The winner this week was Shinnecock.”
They’re right, of course. The success of this Open in all facets will ring throughout the decades. Shinnecock richly deserves the storied history written this week. The eight years before we return can’t go by fast enough.