Brooks Koepka walked onto the first tee for the third round at Bethpage Black dressed in black from head-to-toe as if ready to embrace the role of the bad-guy gunslinger.
With fans shouting his name from the minute he left the putting green to make the walk to the first, Koepka looked about as calm as anyone might be in the maelstrom of the final group in the Saturday round of a Major championship.
He veered slightly to his right to shake hands with the walking scorer and standard bearer for his twosome.
“Hi, I’m Brooks,” he said with a smile, putting his hand out to the teenage girl holding the board that said, “Koepka -12″ and “Spieth -5″, both in red. The girl looked like she might pass out. He repeated the introduction to the middle-aged man who would keep score.
He looked almost as flustered.
From the stands a man yelled, “Brooks, you’re too handsome!”
A woman’s voice followed. “No, you’re not. You’re perfect.”
He accepted a scorecard from a PGA official, took out his driver and waited for Jordan Spieth to arrive a moment later. After starter John Lindert had introduced him, he smashed his opening drive 337 yards, the ball soaring over the trees on the right as if they weren’t there.
It was the longest drive of the day off the first tee.
And why not?
Almost exactly four hours later, after a day that included a number of hiccups – two three-putts; three bogeys after two the first two days and a number of missed fairways – Koepka walked off the 18th green after shooting an even-par 70 with his seven-shot lead intact and only 18 holes left for anyone to catch him.
It’s not happening. Today was Koepka’s ‘off’ day and he still shot even-par on a golf course that produced only 16 rounds under par among the 82 starters and no one below three-under par 67.
How confident is Koepka? When someone asked him if he had any doubt about winning this PGA Championship, he shook his head and said, “No. I feel confident and I feel good. I’ll approach tomorrow like any other day on the golf course. Hit the ball on the fairway, hit it on the green, make the birdie putt.”
Simple game. For Brooks Koepka.
Which is why, although it won’t be official until tomorrow, the golf world right now belongs to Koepka and everyone else is just living in it.
Oh sure, Tiger Woods won the Masters in April, but if Koepka can hang on to the lead in the final round, he will have won three of the past five Majors and four of the last eight he’s played in.
Those are, if you will forgive the expression, almost Tiger 1.0 type-numbers. During his most dominant stretch, Woods won seven of 11 Majors stretching from the 1999 PGA to the 2002 US Open – played right here at the Black. Then, he fired his swing coach, Butch Harmon and went into a “slump”, failing to win in 10 straight Majors. When he finally got comfortable with his Hank Haney swing, he won six of the next 14 from the 2005 Masters until the 2008 US Open.
We all know what happened after that.
Koepka turned 29 earlier this month – the same age Woods was when he started on his second Majors skein. Unlike Woods, Koepka has more or less sneaked up on stardom. There were no “Hello World” declarations when he turned pro and he didn’t win the Masters by 12 strokes at 21.
It was after that 1997 Masters that “Tigermania” became a thing. Then-US PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem even joked at one point that the tour might become the “TGA Tour”, or, as he put it, “the Tigger tour.”
Woods was that good and that electric. Koepka’s not electric – he has no desire to be – and it might be that it will take a victory tomorrow to cement his status as the star in the game, even though he’s won back-to-back US Opens and last year’s PGA – beating Woods and Adam Scott down the stretch at Bellerive Country Club.
The case can be made that Koepka hasn’t been given the credit he deserves to date because of venues and timing. Erin Hills, where he won the US Open in 2017, was widely panned as an ordinary tour-type layout masquerading as a US Open course. Koepka’s winning score was 16-under par and 31 players finished in red figures.
With that kind of scoring it felt more like the old Greater Milwaukee Open than a US Open.
A year later, coming off the wrist surgery that forced him to miss the Masters, Koepka won at Shinnecock Hills, one of golf’s grandest stages. His winning score was a US Open-like one-over par.
But much of the post-championship talk centred not on Koepka becoming the first player since Curtis Strange in 1988-’89 to win back-to-back US Opens, but on the USGA’s course setup mistakes and Phil Mickelson’s meltdown on Saturday when he putted a moving golf ball.
There were no golf course issues and no setup issues or Mickelson meltdowns when Koepka won the PGA at Bellerive last August. But there was a bigger problem: Woods.
After contending at Carnoustie, Woods tried to chase Koepka down on Sunday. He failed, even while shooting 64 because Koepka never blinked, shooting 66.
But to many – perhaps most – in the golf world, the story wasn’t Koepka winning yet another Major, it was Woods proving he could again seriously contend in one. At one point, late in the final round while walking with the final group of Koepka and Scott, CBS’s Peter Kostis commented that, “These two guys have been playing in virtual privacy all afternoon.”
That was because it seemed as if everyone on the grounds was following Woods and Gary Woodland, two groups ahead. Imagine this: a player wins a Major championship and the sponsored “shot-of-the-day” doesn’t involve him. On that day, CBS’s so-called “shot-of-the-day” was Woods’ final birdie on 18 – even though it had no effect at all on who won the championship.
One wonders how people, including the almost-rabid pro-Woods media, would have reacted at Augusta National if Koepka hadn’t found the water at the 12th hole on Sunday and had finished one shot ahead of Woods rather than one shot behind him.
Even before that, there was some kind of weird Koepka backlash. Maybe it was because he didn’t have a classic victory on a classic venue yet. Maybe it was because some saw him as a roadblock to more glory for Woods. Maybe it was because he’s not as naturally outgoing as Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth, the other two young stars with multiple Majors – McIlroy four and Spieth three.
Or maybe it’s just that Koepka is quiet by nature. He’s bright and thoughtful and, in my experience, an excellent interview one-on-one.
A few months ago I was working on a story on how a player breaks out of a slump, the kind that’s mental and has nothing to do with a swing change. I talked to about a dozen players. The best answer came from Koepka:
“I just remind myself that I didn’t forget how to play the game all of a sudden,” he said. “I’ve been a good player for a long time now. If I’m struggling a little it isn’t because I’m not a good player anymore. I just have to go back to simple basics, the things I’ve done well in the past and, sooner or later, it will fall into place again.”
If Koepka finishes the job at Bethpage, there shouldn’t be a single reason for anyone to hold back from anointing him as the clear-cut best player in the world and someone who has the potential to do remarkable things the next few years.
Woods isn’t around to distract any attention from Koepka, having missed the cut by a shot. He left the premises after the second round talking about Koepka in the awed tones other players often used to describe him was he dominating the game.
“Even his misses go 330 yards,” he said with a laugh.
There’s no doubting that Bethpage Black is a great test of golf and it was apparent in the third round, right from the start, that the New York crowd has decided to adopt Koepka. If nothing else, New Yorkers recognise greatness when they see it right in front of them.
If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Right now Koepka can clearly make it anywhere where there’s a golf tournament that matters.
His name is Brooks. And right now he’s playing golf that makes everyone watching feel a little bit faint. At least.