Koepka makes history with back-to-back wins at U.S. Open
June 17, 2018
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Brooks Koepka prevailed at Shinnecock Hills to successfully defend the U.S. Open. (Charlie Kane/PGA TOUR)
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The phrase “U.S. Open player” used to be more descriptive than a Myers-Briggs result. Only a specific personality type had consistent success in this nation’s championship.
The U.S. Open’s constrictive setups required players to walk the straight and narrow. The “U.S. Open player” was more concerned with staying out of trouble than a sheriff’s son. He had sharp creases in his khaki pants and organized his sock drawer for fun. He calculated risk like an actuary.
No more. Brooks Koepka broke the mold with his historic performance at Shinnecock Hills. The man whose biceps bulge out of his tailored sleeves is now the first player in nearly three decades to win this championship in consecutive years. A Sunday 68 gave him a score of 1-over 281, one shot better than Tommy Fleetwood.
“The traditional U.S. Open player is changing. The player in general is changing,” said Curtis Strange, who had been the last back-to-back U.S. Open champ (1988-89). “It’s a different game than when Hale (Irwin) and I were playing. … You still have to put it in the fairway more often than not, but it’s all about power.”
Koepka showed that last year at Erin Hills, where he wielded driver with impunity in a dominant display. He tied the U.S. Open’s scoring record (16 under par) while hitting 62 of 72 greens. He led in greens hit and ranked in the top 10 in both driving distance and accuracy that week.
That modern course carved from the Wisconsin dairy land sent traditionalists into a tizzy with its wide fairways and soft greens. Erin Hills was making its U.S. Open debut. Shinnecock Hills is an 18-hole history lesson. It’s the only course to host this event in three different centuries, dating to the second U.S. Open in 1896.
Koepka compiled similar statistics in his second U.S. Open win, finishing second in driving distance (318.3 yards), fourth in greens hit (49 of 72) and second in Strokes Gained: Putting (+2.13 per round). While Fleetwood missed just eight of Shinnecock Hills' expanded fairways, Koepka ranked 55th in driving accuracy (36 of 56).
He capitalized when he was in the fairway and is strong enough to extricate his ball from the thick fescue when he did stray from the short grass.
“I’m proud of him because there was so much talk about Erin Hills not being a (true) U.S. Open and that he was a big hitter and the whole thing,” Strange said. “He won on a classic, so he’s an Open player.”
That phrase has a new meaning in 2018. Driving accuracy isn't enough to win a U.S. Open.
Long hitters used to be one-dimensional players who sacrificed short-game touch in their quest for strength. Now technology helps players like Koepka and Dustin Johnson hit straighter tee shots, and these athletic players combine high swing speed with the a deft touch around the green.
That’s why two of the TOUR’s longest hitters – Koepka and Johnson – have been the U.S. Open's top two players over the past five years. Koepka hasn’t finished outside the top 20 in the past five Opens, including his back-to-back wins and a fourth-place finish at Pinehurst in 2014. Johnson has four top-4 finishes since 2014, including his win two years ago at Oakmont. He finished third this year after holding a four-shot lead at the halfway point.
The two friends from South Florida have won the last three U.S. Opens.
“The best quote I ever heard is somebody asked Hogan years and years ago if the players today were better. He said, ‘I hope so because if they weren’t we would not have contributed anything to the game,’” Strange said. “(Koepka) is a good striker of the ball and he’s strong and he has a good short game. He’d beat me like a yard dog.”
Strange fit the old U.S. Open mold. He ranked outside the top 150 in driving distance in 1989 but hit more than three-quarters of his fairways. Koepka can hit long irons farther than Strange’s average tee shot (254 yards) that season.
One requirement has remained constant over the decades, though. The U.S. Open demands fortitude. The thick rough and firm greens can drive players mad. Koepka thrives when other players complain.
“If you start complaining, you’re looking for excuses,” he said. “I’m not really one to make excuses. … The U.S. Open is always going to be a tough test of golf. I enjoy that.”
Koepka enjoys a course that forces him to exercise the same discipline he displays in the gym. He doesn't despise being forced to aim away from flags in the quest for par, or relying on long irons off the tee to keep the ball in the fairway. He knows it will give him an advantage as other players grow impatient.
Iin this regard, Koepka is in the ilk of past U.S. Open champions like Strange and Raymond Floyd, who won at Shinnecock Hills in 1986.
“They were these characters, tough and mean,” Koepka's swing coach, Claude Harmon III, said. “Brooks has a very similar demeanor. Nothing bothers him.”
Long par putts are some of the game’s most stressful shots and always key in a U.S. Open victory. Koepka showed his strength under such duress by finishing eighth in putting from 5-10 feet (71 percent). Our obsession with length makes it easy to overlook Koepka’s strong short game. He took control of last year's U.S. Open with three consecutie back-nine birdies. This time he grinded out pars on the closing holes.
“I felt like I made those clutch 8- to 10-footers that you need to make to keep the momentum going,” he said.
With Fleetwood already in the clubhouse at 2 over after shooting 63, Koepka knew he had to play Shinnecock Hills’ difficult back nine in even par.
A birdie at 10 gave him a two-shot cushion, but he was happy just to bogey the par-3 11th. He pulled his wedge shot, which hit the slope behind the green and bounded into the fescue. His best option was to bang his second shot through the green and into a bunker.
He holed a 13-footer for a bogey that was more gratifying than many birdies. He had to hole a 6-foot par putt at the next hole after missing both the fairway and the green.
Two holes later, he had to scramble again at the course’s hardest hole after another pushed tee shot. More than 10 people had to look for his ball even though it was just a few yards after the fairway. After hacking out of the hay, he got up-and-down from 67 yards by holing a 9-footer.
It wasn’t until a birdie at the long par-5 16th, where he wedged to 4 feet, that his lead looked safe.
“Physical skills alone don’t win tournaments,” Strange said. “You have to have the whole package. He was 7 over at one point on Friday. How do you turn it around? You have to be mentally tough to believe in yourself.”
No one has been a better fit for the U.S. Open. Koepka confirmed that this year.