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Brooks Koepka wasn’t losing to anyone, not even Tiger Woods

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.

SOURCE: ESPN

A look at the changes made to Quail Hollow for the 2017 PGA Championship

A look at the changes made to Quail Hollow for the 2017 PGA Championship

A professional golf tournament has not been played at Quail Hollow since James Hahn beat out Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson in the 2016 Wells Fargo Invitational in May. That’s because this year’s Wells Fargo Invitational was bumped to Eagle Point because of the upcoming PGA Championship at Quail.

Since that tournament, though, the golf course itself has undergone some serious renovations in front of hosting its first major championship. Let’s take a look at some of those with the year’s final major just two weeks away.

These changes to the course took place in a very condensed amount of time. As Hahn was finishing off his second PGA Tour win on the back nine of the course, the front nine was already undergoing treatment.

Few places in Charlotte are reimagined more frequently — and more privately — than the exclusive club on Gleneagles Road. This past May 8 (2016), as soon as the last group teed off on the final day of the Wells Fargo Championship, construction crews descended on the course and began a 12-week renovation process that would have taken five or six months on most other courses. But Superintendent Keith Wood didn’t have that kind of time. The club’s president, Johnny Harris, wanted to have the course open to members by the fall.

That led to one of the most remarkable renovations of a golf course in the country, involving three new holes, overhauled fairways, reshaped greens, and the addition of areas for grandstands and spectators — all in three months. “I don’t think I’ll ever come up with any project like this again in my career,” says Wood, a 20-year veteran in the industry.

Here are three other changes to the Quail Hollow track.

1. New Bermuda: A type of grass called Champion Ultradwarf Bermudagrass has been installed on the greens at Quail Hollow. It will be as pure as the driven snow, and it should erase all memories of that nightmare 2013 event at the course in which the bentgrass greens were as splotchy as any PGA Tour event in recent memory.

2. Thousands of trees removed: We will see a sparser Quail Hollow than when we last saw it in 2016. Many of these trees were removed to allow more sunlight to hit the greens, but some were removed to re-shape the golf course, according to the Charlotte Observer.

3. Four-ish new holes: The first and second holes were meshed into a single hole, a 540-yard par 4. The fifth hole was changed from a par 5 to a par 4. A new second hole was built, a par 3. The 11th was given extra bunkering. This is an oddity, for sure, but not much has changed in terms of the actual landscaping of the track.

Golfers will see a totally different front nine (and greens) than they have seen in past years at this course. Jimmy Walker thinks it could lead to higher scores because of thickened rough and a faster track.

Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s chief championships officer, said he was a bit dubious about reformatting the course some 16 months before this year’s major, but Quail Hollow nailed it.

“They lay out all these plans on the table, and thank God we were sitting down; 16 months before the 99th PGA Championship (they) want to totally rebuild three holes and change the green on No. 11,” Haigh told reporters. “I’m not sure anywhere else we could have had that faith to make such significant changes to what is already a fantastic golf course.”

This may not make a material difference in who wins the golf tournament. Quail Hollow has produced some big boy winners in the past including McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Fowler, and given what we’ve seen in the last few years at major championships, that’s not likely to change in two weeks at the 99th PGA Championship.

SOURCE: CBS SPORTS