The tough task of three-peating
Brooks Koepka hopes to become the first player in 114 years to win three consecutive U.S. Opens
June 11, 2019
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
Curtis Strange distinctly remembers reading the newspaper on Saturday after grabbing a one-shot lead at the midway point of the 1989 U.S. Open. That’s how he found out the last player to successfully defend the tournament’s title, as he was trying to do at Oak Hill that week, was Ben Hogan.
“I said, ‘Whoa, that's pretty cool,’” Strange recalls. “Then I didn't play well on Saturday, so Curtis and Ben Hogan weren't mentioned in Sunday's morning paper.”
Strange made up that three-stroke deficit in the final round, though, and became just the sixth man – and the first since Hogan in 1950-51 -- to have his name etched on the U.S. Open trophy in consecutive years.
“Move over, Ben,” Strange said memorably as he sat down for his post-round interview.
And as for three in a row? Well, the sportswriters in attendance had done their due diligence. So, someone broached Willie Anderson’s name.
“Well, who’s that?” Strange remembers asking. “When did he win it three times in a row? I felt like I knew the history of the game pretty well and I didn't know.”
Remember now, this was 1989. Not exactly the dark ages, but as Strange points out “there was no Mr. Google back then.” And Anderson, who is the only player to have ever won three straight U.S. Opens, accomplished the feat in 1903-05, so his name wasn’t exactly top of mind.
“I should have called Crenshaw on that one,” Strange says, chuckling.
Ben Crenshaw, who knows the history of the game as well as anyone does, likely could have told Strange that Anderson was a Scotsman who emigrated to America at the age of 16 and worked at more than a dozen different clubs before dying of epilepsy at 31. He actually won the U.S. Open four times in a span of five years – and you get bonus points if you know he used both the gutta percha and wound ball.
Anderson’s name hasn’t come up much in conversation since 1990 after Strange tied for 21st in his bid to three-peat. After all, no one had successfully defended a U.S. Open title since Strange … until Brooks Koepka did it last year at Shinnecock Hills.
Koepka didn’t say, “Move over, Curtis,” to Strange, who was the on-course analyst in Koepka’s group during that historic final round. But as Strange handled the post-round interview on the 18th green, Koepka understood he had just joined a rare club.
“It was a pretty cool moment,” Koepka said at the time.
Anderson’s accomplishment will once again be a part of the narrative this week as the world’s No. 1 player heads to Pebble Beach in search of a three-peat at the U.S. Open. He’s won four of the last eight majors, including his second straight PGA Championship last month at Bethpage Black; he also tied for second at the Masters.
Will we hear “Move over, Willie” on Sunday night?
“Yeah, that name has come up in the last year,” Koepka says in his typical low-key fashion. “I know what I'm … chasing or trying to accomplish.”
The game has produced 221 different major champions and 82 men who have won two or more. Just 31 of those have been successful title defenses, with Koepka authoring the last two, including last year’s U.S. Open on Long Island.
Take an even narrower view of golf’s crown jewels, though, and you’ll discover that only one man has won three straight majors since the Grand Slam was defined as the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship.
He’s Australian Peter Thomson, the World Golf Hall of Famer and former Presidents Cup captain, who won consecutive Open Championships from 1954-56 -- and for good measure, added two more victories in 1958 and 1965. Thomson – who passed away a year ago at the age of 88 – came very close to winning five straight Opens.
“The fourth one I sort of threw away,” Thomson said during a press conference prior to the 2007 Open Championship. “… I finished second at St. Andrews at my fourth run and I felt that I should have won that if I had been a bit smarter. Luck beat me there. But then I won the next one. If you could think about it, it would have been -- well, not easy, but it would have been a fact that I did five.”
As for the other streaks at the Open, the four straight wins by Young Tom Morris (1868-72; no event played in 1871), and the three straight by Jamie Anderson (1877-79) and Bob Ferguson (1880-82) were hardly in the modern era.
The only other player to win the same major at least three consecutive times was Walter Hagen, who won four straight PGA Championships from 1924-27 when it utilized a match-play format. After winning his second straight PGA last month at Bethpage Black, Koepka could be the first to win three straight PGAs under the stroke-play format next year at TPC Harding Park.
Consider this: The man who has won the most professional majors – Jack Nicklaus – only successfully defended once, at the 1966 Masters, and he missed the cut at Augusta National the following year. And Tiger Woods, who doggedly chases Nicklaus’ record of 18, won two majors in a row four times, but he didn’t finish in the top 10 the next year in three of those and was injured and couldn’t play in the fourth.
“It's trying to peak at the right time. That's the trick, and it's not easy to do,” Woods says. “Brooks has done it better than anyone else the last couple of years."
“He knows what he needs to do, and he seems to get his game, mind and body coming together for those big weeks. And that's what we're all looking to have happen, but he's figured out what's best for him.”
As Woods noted, Koepka definitely has all the tools. He’s powerful off the tee, accurate with his irons and putts with authority. But what might be his biggest asset is confidence, and the way he seems to be able to power off all the distractions.
Strange had a similar mindset when he was at the peak of his game. He played with heart as well as his hands.
“Hey, you go out there and you do your best,” the World Golf Hall of Famer says. “You take a deep breath. You believe in yourself. You've done this before and now it's a matter of getting it done.
“One of the best lines I ever heard is that once in a while you've just got to be a man. Step up to the plate and don't fail.”
Easier said than done, of course. And Strange can tell Koepka from experience that what unfolds this week at Pebble Beach will not be just another tournament. To start with, every mistake at a U.S. Open is magnified. His every move and every shot will be scrutinized, too, in what has become a 24-hour news cycle.
“It's all amped up for him a little bit. But he looks like he's the guy of all guys who can handle it, because he's low key,” Strange says. “We don't know what goes on inside him, but he certainly appears as he's a one shot, one round, one tournament at a time type of guy.”
Koepka, who tied for 50th at the RBC Canadian Open on Sunday in his only outing since the PGA win, says he relishes the challenge of competing in a major championship. He acknowledges the odds are against him this week with the 149 other players in the field also trying to grab their own personal piece of history.
“I'll be up for it, I know that,” Koepka says. “I enjoy a tough test of golf and that's what you're going to get at a U.S. Open. You know that going in. I enjoy it. It's fun. It's fun to me to get on those big stages and try to win, win a golf tournament.”
Brooks Koepka's 2019 swing analysis
Padraig Harrington, who won the Open Championship in 2007 and ’08, says a returning champ almost feels like he comes into the tournament already holding a lead when defending a major title or trying for a three-peat. Most other weeks, he notes, the stress doesn’t manifest itself until Sunday.
“It's a tough thing when you're being talked about, you know, the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, even weeks coming into it with the pressure, the build-up,” Harrington says. “You feel like you're playing that with that little bit more trepidation because … if you're the favorite to win you feel like you've got something to lose."
“Rather then, if you're just one of many faces, you can get out there and then nobody knows you and you can play within yourself and, OK, when you get in contention, the pressure comes on. But there's definitely the pressure from the minute you get there, and even prior to the tournament.”
Harrington also thinks that the 29-year-old Koepka could join Nicklaus, Woods and Hagen with major wins tallied in double digits. “He’s cracking them out at a fair pace,” the Irishman said after the PGA Championship.
Strange remembers his outlook changing and the pressure shifting at Oak Hill during his first title defense. He held the second-round lead after a 64, but was three strokes behind Tom Kite entering the final round. Suddenly, he had nothing to lose.
“It wasn't about winning back-to-back,” Strange explains. “It was about trying to win a U.S. Open, your national championship, again. I actually think back-to-back didn't have much meaning to it back then. As the years went on, every year it became more meaningful because you're the last guy.”
Strange’s bid for the three-peat was a totally different animal. He came to Medinah playing “OK,” in his words, on the heels of a tie for eighth at what was then called the Centel Western Open. He admits the historic bid was never far from his mind in the 12 months since his win at Oak Hill.
“I actually put a lot of pressure on myself, thought about it a lot,” he says. “I don't know. I guess maybe in an arrogant sort of way, I felt like I had a chance. So why not?"
“That itself I think led to every moment not on the range or on the golf course thinking about it pretty much. Not every moment but thinking about it a lot. And every shot I hit on the range; it seems like leading up to the Open was thinking about the Open.”
Strange gave himself a chance, too, with a third-round 68 that left him two strokes off the lead. But he says he could feel things slipping away when he hit a fat 4-iron on the par-3 second hole and made bogey. With Greg Norman and Hale Irwin making a charge, he started to press. A 75 landed him in a tie for 21st.
“The major part of the realization is when I was in the car going to the airport afterwards,” Strange recalls. “I've always said this: I had a sinking feeling that just didn't leave me for a while. It was, I don't know. You put so much effort into one week. It's asking a lot to think you can go win on a given week."
“There was just a letdown I guess is what you'd call it, I don't know. But you come to your senses a couple days later and say it would be asking a lot. So, it was fun trying. That's all you can do.”
Now that he’s become a TV analyst Strange says he doesn’t root for players. He roots for the story and says it makes his job more fun.
At the Masters, the story was Woods, of course. At the PGA, all eyes were on Koepka -- who took a seven-stroke lead int the final round -- and his good friend Dustin Johnson as they ended up going head-to-head on the final nine at Bethpage.
“The story going into Pebble will be can Tiger play well again?” Strange says. “Can Brooks win three in a row? Can DJ, where he should have won back so many years ago at Pebble, can he recreate that? You've got Justin Rose, you've got seven or eight, 10 guys that are more than capable of winning at Pebble."
“So, we'll just have to see.”
Pebble Beach is one of the game’s iconic courses, one that the PGA TOUR plays every year. So, there is familiarity there. And at 7,040 yards, it’s not as long as some more beastly U.S. Open venues, which some people think might not play to Koepka’s advantage of length and strength.
“I don't know if I buy into that argument or not, I really don't,” Strange says. “Talent is talent. Between Rory and DJ and him and Jordan and Justin and whoever else you want to put in there, Tommy and whoever else, talent is talent. I don't care where you play."
“And right now, he's shining brighter than anybody else, but his strength is ... he looks like he was just free-wheeling it so well at the PGA and it shows that he's full of confidence.”
So, does Strange have any advice for Koepka? Yeah, don’t change a thing.
“It's another shot, another round, another tournament,” he says. “That's the way we all try to take it. Some I guess accomplish that in different ways. But as I said earlier, he looks like he thoroughly, not only tries to do it, but executes it as well as anybody. Again, we don't know what's churning inside, but he looks like a pretty cool customer on the outside.”
Harrington agrees that Koepka has the right temperament. One suggestion that he’d make? Be mindful of the many media commitments that only add to the hype and don’t be afraid to say no.
“I think just deal with it and get on with it,” Harrington says simply.
Ryder Cup Captain Steve Stricker knows a thing or two about going back-to-back-to-back at the John Deere Classic. In fact, he almost made it four straight before ending up tied for fifth. And Koepka certainly has his attention for a variety of reasons.
“He's at such a different level than, you know, where I was ever at,” Stricker says. “I mean, this guy has taken care of majors like they're nothing. It's crazy. He works hard at it, prepares, takes care of himself and get strong. He's seems to be doing all the right things."
“It's impressive to watch.”
Stricker’s three John Deere wins from 2009-11 were the last of the 27 three-peats in PGA TOUR history. Woods has done it six times. Now Koepka has two opportunities to do it at majors in the next 11 months.
Koepka was still in high school when Thomson made this observation 13 years ago: “Not too many people actually want to win desperately or have it in their makeup that they really squirm if they don't win. I think a lot of people are content to be not the managing director, but to be a general sales manager or something like that. The responsibility of the top is too much for most people."
“I think as Henry V said … ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’ Not everybody wants the crown.”
It’s obvious Koepka is comfortable wearing the U.S. Open crown. His challenge this week will be figuring out how to keep it for a third consecutive year.