The issue was in doubt for just 47 minutes on the final day. But holy hell, was it an exciting 47 minutes.
The fourth round was supposed to be a coronation, not competition, and for the first three hours, that’s how the US PGA Championship proceeded. Brooks Koepka, he of a seven-shot lead entering the day, made the turn in even-par, and though Dustin Johnson posted a three-under 32 on the front, the engraver still had the green-light to chisel Koepka’s name once again into the Wanamaker Trophy – a process that could have well begun after Koepka birdied the 10th hole as Johnson simultaneously bogeyed the 11th. Koepka, 13-under for the week, up by six shots with eight holes to play.
That advantage shrunk to five after the 11th. Amazingly, that seemed to further seal the deal, as Koepka converted a testy six-footer for bogey. Even in error, Koepka couldn’t be shaken.
That’s how things felt as the 29-year-old walked to the 12th tee. Then the damnedest thing happened. Maybe the Black course was sick of being pushed around for 65 holes. Or the Majors, those events that Koepka called “easy” to win, decided to respond in kind. Perhaps the tournament got second-hand intoxicated from the spirits that permeated the Long Island air. Whatever the cause, this much is true: for a fleeting 47 minutes on Sunday afternoon, Bethpage devolved into anarchy.
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For posterity, it started about 5:15pm, local time. On the 515-yard, par-4 12th, Koepka pulled a Greg Norman, his drive sailing wide and to the right. His ball was in the rough, that infamous Bethpage Black rough. All the muscles Koepka possesses, which are many, could power his second shot only 140 yards from 200 out. With a wedge in hand from 60 yards, Koepka left his ball above the hole, a place you absolutely cannot be on the 12th. The 17-footer missed; Koepka dropped to 11-under.
In itself, not much to write home about. The 12th was the second-toughest hole of the week, no shame in taking bogey. That Johnson failed to birdie the par-5 13th eliminated any possible tension, or so it seemed. The lead was at four.
The wind began to howl, turning the usually reachable 13th into a true three-shot hole. Koepka took his hammer back and swung with all his might. Too much, it proved, the slash sending the ball hooking with fury. The drive was so bad it turned out O.K., coming to rest in fescue that had been trampled by fans.
With the crowd ready to swallow Koepka whole – God bless the volunteers charged with giving Koepka room to breathe – he managed to get clean contact with a 7-iron. The ball didn’t find the short stuff, but it was just 160 yards from the green. Par appeared secured, birdie back in play.
Koepka believed his ball would come out hot, and that the gusts weren’t as strong as they were. He was wrong on both accounts, his approach 30 yards short of the pin. From the fringe, he went with the flatstick and gunned it, sending the uphill putt eight feet past. The stroke on the par save was true; his line wasn’t, the ball lipping out. A third consecutive bogey for Brooks. Johnson, now three behind.
“I felt like I was playing good,” Koepka asserted. “I just made mistakes at the wrong time.”
As Brooks walked to the par-3 14th, Johnson was playing the 15th. It was the hardest hole this week, surrendering just 39 birdies and racking up 190 bogeys or worse. Well, hardest for everyone but Johnson, who had birdied it each of the first three days.
Whatever image comes to mind when conjuring a Dustin Johnson bomb, embellish it, as Johnson went full-send, his drive travelling a whopping 364 yards. Travelled too far, his ball settling in the first cut. From there, it would be tough, borderline impossible, to get any type of spin on the approach. Yet he did, biting and catching the right side of the hill on the green, leaving 10 feet. At 5:43pm, Johnson dropped the birdie, his fourth in four tries at the 15th hole, eliciting a display of emotion from the stoic personality. Deficit, down to two.
“I was really trying not to pay attention too much because it was so difficult out there,” Johnson said. “I know anything can happen.”
Things got tight. Really tight. Koepka has the best poker face in golf, but in that moment, a visible sense of apprehension shot across his face. Shortly after, he hit his tee shot at the 14th.
The next six minutes still escape description.
It was one of the worst shorts of the day at the 14th, Koepka’s ball airmailing the green something fierce. From the tee, Koepka peered, incredulous. “How?” he mouthed. “How?” The player who looked like a cyborg only 30 minutes before was now fully human.
“We had 150 yards to the hole, and Harold (Varner III) hit 8 and the wind ate it up, and mine, it just died on me,” Koepka said. “You know, I made a good swing there, too.”
But that’s not the curious thing; golf has a penchant for embarrassing, even to the best. As Koepka’s shot sailed towards the grandstand, a cheer – or, depending on your viewpoint, a jeer – went out:
“DeeJay! DeeJay! DeeJay!“
The Bethpage gallery, which had been so accepting of Brooks all weekend, had officially turned. It was odd, it was bizarre, it was embarrassing. Like the 2016 Ryder Cup crowd time-travelled to Farmingdale. Koepka’s pitch went long, and from 20 feet on the fringe, his par putt didn’t come close. And as he made his way down the hill to the 15th tee, the chants went up once more, and with vigour. “DEEJAY! DEEJAY! DEEJAY!”
The course collapsed on itself. A seven-shot lead, almost completely vanished. “Norman-esque” was tossed around in the most negative possible connotation. Koepka, unflappable for three-and-a-half days, was bloodied and bruised. Johnson, the man who’s been on the business end of countless Major heartbreaks, now benefiting from another’s woes. The worst fears of the crowd had come to fruition. It was drama, everything that word conveys.
But then someone grabbed the tournament and doused it in cold water. That someone was Brooks Koepka.
It is said to never awake a sleeping giant. That’s what those taunts did to golf’s Incredible Hulk.
The man who eats slights for sustenance stood tough at the 15th, cranking a drive 350 yards to the right side of the fairway.
“When they started chanting ‘DJ’ on 14, it actually kind of helped, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I think it helped me kind of refocus and hit a good one down 15. I think that was probably the best thing that could have happened.”
At the same time, Johnson was across the way on the 16th, and in trouble. His second shot sailed the green, and he would be pitching to a pin going away from him. Johnson was in disbelief, deeming his shot pure.
“I still don’t know how my ball went over the green there,” Johnson said.
He made a nice chip, about as nice as you can do from that spot, leaving seven feet or so for par. It was not to be, Johnson’s putt breaking to the right when he thought it would break left. Koepka’s lead was back to two.
“That one kind of took – you know, I knew I needed to birdie one of the last two when I did that,” Johnson said.
A view Koepka saw in full.
“Yeah, we’re down, it’s kind of perfect,” Koepka said of the vantage point. “So right when we were walking, I saw he had a putt, and obviously I heard the ‘oohh’, so I knew.”
Before Johnson headed to the 17th, Koepka’s drive found the fairway, and his approach went safely on the green, some 25 feet away. It was what the situation called for, as was his lag to three feet. The bogey streak was broken, and he received some latitude.
The 17th is a natural amphitheatre, the best spectator hole on the course. And, this being a New York crowd, also the rowdiest. That manifested itself at the worst time. In the middle of Johnson’s backswing, a few fans chirped in his direction, would could explain why his ball was nowhere near the pin’s postcode.
“There was a lot of yells out there,” Johnson said, laughing. “I just, you know – you’ve just got to go with it. I made a bad swing.”
A poor chip followed, and a solid effort from 18 feet was not enough. Johnson bogeyed his second straight hole.
The lead was three, with Koepka officially closing the door in the fairway at the 16th. At 6:02pm, his approach found the putting surface, and another sensible lag followed suit. There was a touch of theatre still left, sure, what with two holes remaining, but the tournament had reached its pinnacle. Any remaining drama was erased by an errant tee shot at the last by Johnson. Despite a likewise poor drive, Koepka’s walk to the 72nd green was one alleviated of tension.
At least for the viewers. When his par putt dropped, Koepka let his shoulders down and punched the air with all his force. The Wanamaker was his once again.
“It was very, very stressful,” Koepka said. “That’s why I let a big sigh of relief go.”
History will show that Brooks Koepka won the 2019 PGA Championship by two shots over Dustin Johnson. For the majority of the event, it was a clinic. But for 47 minutes…
“I tell you what, the hour spent from No.11 to 14 was interesting,” Koepka said.
Today proved to be a coronation for Koepka. A wild, chaotic coronation.