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PGA Championship 2023: Brooks Koepka learned enough from his latest disappointment to know what not to do

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Scott Taetsch/PGA of America

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Quite often a player who comes close to winning a major championship tends to give himself another chance almost right away if he keeps his form intact and carries the right attitude. Brooks Koepka checks both those boxes heading into Sunday’s final round of the 105th PGA Championship.

Just one month removed from “choking”—his word—to lose to Jon Rahm in the Masters after holding a two-stroke lead through 54 holes, Koepka is in position to assuage that disappointment with a possible third PGA title. A brilliant four-under 66 on a wet and miserable afternoon at Oak Hill Country Club was the low round for the second consecutive day and propelled the four-time major winner to a one-stroke lead over Norway’s Viktor Hovland and Canada’s Corey Conners.

Koepka, who sits at six-under 204, has been thwarted in several major bids since he won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 2017-18 and consecutive PGA titles in 2018-19, the latter coming at Bethpage Black on Long Island. None, of course, was more painful than his letdown at Augusta National, when he shot a closing 75 to finish runner-up in the Masters for the second time in four years.

The Florida native, 33, might not win tomorrow at Soaked Hill, but he vows not to lose in the same manner that cost him a green jacket. The experience taught him a valuable lesson.

“To just never think the way I thought going into the final round,” he said, referring to a mindset that was too tentative. “I think that was a big thing for me but other than that I think even having … learning what I learned at Augusta kind of helped today. Like I said, I won't do it again the rest of my career. But that doesn't mean that you can't go play bad. You can play good, you'll play bad, but I'll never have that mindset or that won't ever be the reason.”

Not that it makes it easier, but his nearest pursuers have not won a major, though Hovland, 25, a five-time winner as a pro and a former U.S. Amateur champion, seems to have a nose for the goal line and is probably destined to break through soon if not Sunday. He now has been seventh or better on the leaderboard after each of the last 11 major championship rounds.

Both Hovland and Conners shot 70 after beginning the third round tied atop the leaderboard with 2022 Masters winner Scottie Scheffler. Bryson DeChambeau, a fellow LIV Golf member with Koepka, was next, also shooting 70 to post 207. Scheffler is tied for fifth at 208 with former U.S. Open winner Justin Rose of England. Scheffler made just one birdie in a frustrating 73 while Rose had a 69.

Rory McIlroy, who began the week fighting an unspecified illness, shot his second-straight 69 on Saturday and has an outside chance to also claim his third win in this championship, sitting alone in seventh five strokes back.

For much of the soggy day, Conners, 31, looked in control of things until he bludgeoned the par-4 16th by mis-hitting his second shot out of a fairway bunker. He thinned it into the bunker face, where his ball plugged, and after a free drop in the deep rough he proceeded to make double bogey.

“Wish I could have that one back,” said Conners, who years ago was inspired by watching fellow Canadian Mike Weir win the 2003 Masters. “It was an unfortunate situation and a poor shot. But I played solid the last few days, so just trying to do more of the same and have some fun out there and play with freedom.”

That’s easier said than done. Just ask Koepka, who now holds his fifth 54-hole lead in a major. He converted three into wins, the only setback coming last month at Augusta. Even with experience, it's not easy to close things out in the events that mean the most

But now Koepka is healthy, and he seems to have come to terms with his Masters meltdown. And there is no doubt his game is solid.

His consecutive 66s makes him the first player in PGA history to have the best round of the day twice in the same championship. In the last 30 years in major championships, only two other players posted back-to-back “ringer” scores: Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters and Martin Kaymer at the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

Both men went on to win easily.

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