Brooks Koepka wasn’t losing to anyone, not even Tiger Woods
ST LOUIS — He could hear the roars. How could he not? It felt, at times, like the Bellerive Country Club was vibrating. Brooks Koepka, however, wouldn’t look in the direction of them. He just kept marching forward, often with his head down and a tiny smirk on his face.
Up ahead, it was obvious Tiger Woods was pouring in birdies. The fairy-tale finish at the PGA Championship that everyone seemed to be longing for was taking shape. It was starting to feel like a remake of the 1986 Masters, with Koepka playing the role of Greg Norman, and Tiger morphing into Jack Nicklaus. The sentimental favorite was going to conjure up some old magic, and the young and brash phenom was going to wilt. The pressure was mounting with each roar.
“Everybody on the golf course could hear it,” Koepka said. “You could hear it trickle down as they changed the scoreboards. You’d hear different roars every three seconds. It was pretty obvious when Tiger made a birdie.”
But this wasn’t 1986. There was one significant difference this time. In this version, the brawny, confident antihero never blinked. You don’t have to love it, but Koepka was so icy and impressive amid the circus, you have to respect it. After holding off Woods for a two-stroke victory, Koepka now has three major championships at the age of 28. He did what Woods used to do in his prime, grabbing the lead and then stepping on the accelerator every time someone got close.
“Other than me and my team, I think everybody was rooting for Tiger,” Koepka said. “As they should. He’s the greatest player to ever to play the game. [Woods] is the whole reason people of my generation are even playing golf. To duel it out with him, I don’t think I ever dreamed of that situation today.”
Historically, it’s always been easy to compare Woods and Nicklaus. They dominated their eras like no one before them or since. And interestingly, there are a lot of similarities between Koepka and Norman. They’re both fitness freaks, both historically great drivers and both walked with a swagger and a chip on their shoulder. There appears to be one major difference, however: Norman tended to melt in big moments, and Koepka seems to live for them.
Need an example? When Woods birdied the 15th hole on Sunday to pull within a shot at 13-under par — nearly dunking his approach from the fairway — it was bedlam. Even if you shouted, you could barely hear your own voice above the din. Woods punched the air in jubilation, seemingly feeding off the gallery’s energy. “I wish we could play in front of crowds like this every single week because this is a true pleasure,” Woods said.
Koepka couldn’t help but smile, listening to it unfold.
“It brought me back to when I was a kid, when I was watching him, and you heard those roars,” Koepka said.
But instead of getting starstruck, Koepka uncorked a 334-yard drive on 15, hit his approach to 10 feet and made the birdie.
“He’s a tough guy to beat when he’s hitting it 340 in the air,” Woods said, talking about Koepka’s game with the same kind of awe Woods’ elders used to talk about his. “[Hitting it] 320 in the air is like a chip shot [for him]. That’s the new game.”
Koepka wasn’t done. He stood on the daunting 16th tee, a 248-yard par 3, and hit arguably the best shot of his entire week, ripping a 4-iron that landed soft and trickled to within 6 feet of the pin.
“That was like a laser,” said Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott. “He had to push the button. He had to give himself a cushion coming down the last few holes. The wedge on 15 was huge too, but that 4 iron, it never left the stick.”
“That’s probably going to go down as one of the best shots I’ve ever hit under pressure,” Koepka said.
When he drained the birdie putt, Koepka’s lead was back to two strokes. A birdie by Woods on 18, and bogey by Adam Scott on the same hole, gave Woods sole claim to second place. But even a final-round 64, Woods’ best Sunday round ever in a major, wasn’t enough.
“Surreal, that’s all I can say,” Koepka said.
It’s hard to surmise, at the moment, just how good, in historical terms, Koepka might be. Only four other players have ever won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship in the same year. It’s some pretty robust company: Gene Sarazen (1922), Ben Hogan (1948), Nicklaus (1980) and Woods (2000).
You can argue that Koepka, if he keeps this up, could go down as one of the best American golfers ever, a thought he said hadn’t even occurred to him until he was asked about it Sunday night.
“I actually never thought about that,” Koepka said, grinning as he turned that potential reality over in his mind. “Three majors at 28 — it’s a cool feeling. It really is. You know, hopefully I can stay healthy. I’ve kind of had some trouble with that over the past two years, three years. I think I’m much more disciplined now, so I should be able to play every major, making sure my body’s healthy. But I’m excited. I’m excited for the next few years. I mean, as fans — and I’m a fan of golf — you should be excited. I mean, Tiger’s come back. You look at what Dustin [Johnson is] doing, Justin [Thomas], Rory [McIlroy], [Jordan] Spieth. It’s a great time to be a golf fan. I can’t wait to duel it out with them over the next couple years.”
There was a time when Woods — having finished second — would have been on his private jet by the time the last putt dropped. But this time was different. He hung around until Koepka was finished and offered him a hearty bear hug after the winner had signed his scorecard.
“I could hear it!” Koepka said, referencing the roars.
In truth, we all could. It was still special. But the game rolls on, and new faces emerge. The past is fun to revisit, but as Koepka can attest, the present is pretty damn good too.
Justin Thomas figured out how to win again at just the right time
AKRON, Ohio — The last time Justin Thomas won a golf tournament, he was calling out rowdy spectators in the gallery and getting more attention for that controversial move than for capturing the Honda Classic.
That win was five months ago, not that big of a deal in the overall scheme of things but an eternity to a guy like Thomas, who was getting a bit antsy before closing the deal on Sunday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
A five-time winner during the 2017 season, Thomas, 25, was always going to have a tough time living up to that Player of the Year season. And heading into defense of his PGA Championship this week at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, it was bugging him.
“It’s been hard, too,” Thomas said of trying to temper expectations. “I mean, it feels like I haven’t won in forever.”
Of course, a four-shot win at Firestone and a first World Golf Championship victory will make that angst go away quickly. Thomas took care of that nagging victory question with a final-round 69 to easily win over Kyle Stanley while winning a PGA Tour event for the first time with his grandparents in attendance.
While there was some emotion involved, Thomas might also step back for some perspective.
All he needs to do is ask his good buddy, Jordan Spieth, what it’s been like this year. Spieth has not won since the 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale.
And so while Spieth heads to Bellerive trying to complete the career Grand Slam, it is Thomas who takes a good bit of momentum, now having won three times this season to join No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson as the only players to win that often.
Funny, that friendship/rivalry with Spieth — who tied for 60th and shot three rounds in the 70s this week.
Their relationship goes back more than a decade, back to junior golf days and at rival colleges, where each could hold their own share of bragging rights.
But Spieth clearly blossomed more quickly as a pro than Justin Thomas, who always praised his good buddy’s success through an amazing early run on the PGA Tour, including his third major title last year at The Open and into the PGA Championship where he was getting all the hype.
Spieth was gunning for the career Grand Slam and Thomas was … well, searching for his first major championship, which came with a final-round 68, as he overtook a few of the game’s other young stars in the process at Quail Hollow.
Now, three victories later, he has closed the gap on Spieth — 11 PGA Tour victories for Spieth, nine for Thomas. And since the start of 2017, Thomas has won seven times, had a brief time at No. 1 in the world, and now sits No. 2 to Johnson.
“I think what he learned is that he has to play his game and not force it,” said Thomas’ caddie, Jimmy Johnson, who has been working with Thomas for three years after a long stint with Steve Stricker. “Let the course come to him, and play a little smarter. He was trying too hard, maybe. I don’t think he was so much frustrated as he was trying too hard. He’s just letting his potential go through now.”
Thomas had not exactly been dogging it since his Honda victory. He lost in a playoff to Phil Mickelson the next week at the WGC-Mexico Championship and was fourth at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
But his only top-10s since then were a tie for eighth at both the Memorial and the French Open. He was not a final-day factor at the Masters and U.S. Open and he missed the cut two weeks ago at The Open.
“I just want to have more chances to win tournaments,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of really solid finishes, a lot of top-10s, or a lot of top-15s, but a lot of those have been because of a pretty good last day, as opposed to having a chance to win. That’s what I’m out here for.
“These last, what, six events, I really want to try to have an opportunity to win as many of these events as I can going into Sunday and on the back nine, because that’s where I feel like I’m comfortable, it’s where I feel like I thrive, it’s what I enjoy, it’s why I play.”
It is that kind of attitude that quickly drew Rory McIlroy to Thomas when he first came on tour a few years ago. They live near each other in South Florida, so they often practice and play together.
As it turned out, they were grouped in the final pairing Sunday, with McIlroy unable to make a charge and settling for a tie for sixth.
“I like J.T.’s attitude over everything else,” McIlroy said. “He’s got a nasty streak in him, which I think you need out here. He has that. When he gets himself in the hunt, you can see like a little twinkle in his eye and he really enjoys it.”
What made Sunday even better for Thomas was having his grandparents on hand. Both Thomas’ dad, Mike, and his grandfather, Paul, were PGA of America pros — and Paul Thomas played in the 1960 PGA Championship at Firestone. Paul and Phyllis Thomas live in the Louisville, Ky., and this is the first time they saw Justin win in person on the PGA Tour.
“It was pretty special,” he said. “I can’t put it into words, honestly. I saw my grandma and grandpa and just had to put my head down. I never have gotten like that on the golf course before. You just don’t know if they’re ever going to see me win if I don’t win here, so it was pretty cool to get it done.”