SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — A day after balls were repelled from the baked-out yellow-brick greens of Shinnecock Hills like pesky mosquitos to a can of Raid, and Phil Mickelson was driven to a breaking point of intentionally hitting a moving ball, Tommy Fleetwood had a putt for the lowest score in U.S. Open history. He settled for tying the mark, becoming just the sixth player to shoot 63 in the 118 editions of the championship. A birdie fest had broken out in Sunday's final round, relatively speaking at least, after the USGA had doused the course with enough water to fill Peconic Bay. Never mind that the hole locations looked like something out of a Wednesday pro-am.
Still, when it came to Brooks Koepka becoming the first player to go back-to-back in the national championship since Curtis Strange in 1988-’89 and just the seventh overall to successfully win back the U.S. Open trophy, it was a tried-and-true method that paid the biggest dividend. Not being afraid to settle for pars—and even a bogey at times—helped carry the 28-year-old to his second career major title.
“I think this whole thing of everyone said Erin Hills was set up for me, it was set up for a lot of guys that bomb the ball,” Koepka said of last year’s football-field-wide Open venue. “I just happened to play a little bit better that week. This week it was just back to a typical U.S. Open, where one over par wins the golf tournament. It’s just a lot of grinding. But I couldn’t be happier with the way I played.”
And why not. This one had reason to feel more satisfying.
Unlike a year ago, when Koepka bashed his way to matching the lowest total score in championship history on a course where 31 players broke par, the buffed bomber’s victory on Sunday required the kind of game that belied his bulging biceps and broad shoulders. There was nuance in dissecting the William Flynn masterpiece—a word that no one would use to describe much-criticized Erin Hills—especially when it mattered most.
Leading by two and with his ball stuck in the thick rough behind the green on the par-3 11th, Koepka purposely pitched across the putting surface and into a bunker, then got up and down, draining a 13-footer to save bogey on the 160-yard par 3. One hole later, and again in a tricky spot behind the green, he did one better, getting up and down for par after knocking in a nervy six-footer.
Then on the most difficult hole on the course, the par-4 14th, Koepka drove into rough too heavy even for his might, forcing him to chop out and leaving a delicate 67 yards into the green on the 512-yard hole. He flighted the shot into a forward hole location made difficult by a false front and stopped it eight feet from the cup before sinking the putt to keep a two-stroke advantage.
“That was huge,” Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott, said of the bogey on 11. “It’s hard to believe a bogey can keep your momentum, but it did. He’s been one of best putters on tour and hits it a long way, but his short game is so good.”
“I can’t really pick one of those because they were all kind of at different times,” added Koepka, who closed with a two-under 68 to finish at one-over 281 and a stroke clear of Fleetwood, who had polished off his historic round a few hours earlier. “I felt like I could have been very easily derailed, making double or triple. You've just got to keep plugging away.”
That same mentality had kept him going earlier this year, when Koepka missed three months due to a partially torn tendon in his left wrist and was admittedly down in the dumps about a suddenly uncertain future. The injury kept Koepka out of the Masters, and that only motivated him further. The day after Patrick Reed slipped his arms into the green jacket, Koepka got clearance to hit balls again. He started with wedges and 9-irons, and looked like he hadn’t missed a day. By the end of the week he was getting after it with full shots.
“For someone who’s never been a golf nerd, I think he fell in love with golf for the first time in his life,” said Koepka’s coach Claude Harmon. “He wasn’t that guy, not a guy who’s going to follow golf or watch golf. When he came back, there was a definite something about wanting to play again that I hadn’t seen before. I really believe he fell in love with golf again and fell in love with the game of golf and playing and hitting shots.”
All of them were on display at Shinnecock Hills, where after playing his first 22 holes of the week in seven over something clicked. Koepka closed out his second round with six birdies over his final 11 holes and shot 66.
“He started hitting good shots into the right sides of the greens,” Elliott said. “We were really sloppy the first 27 holes, and then he was hitting driver good and hitting his irons good.”
And grinding, too. Koepka carded a third-round 72 on a day when the scoring average soared north of 75 as USGA officials admitted the course had gotten away from them. By the following morning, the setup had done a 180 and players were taking dead aim.
Close friends Koepka and Johnson—Koepka lived with Johnson for six months last year in South Florida while his house was being finished—started Sunday like a lot of other days, in the gym. Johnson noted the easy hole locations and good scoring opportunities. In between conversation, they threw around some weight, too, with Koepka knocking off 14 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. He couldn’t quite get the 15th and lost a bet to his trainer. It didn’t matter. He’d pay him back a few hours later. It would also be the last of the conversation for the day between Koepka and the top-ranked player in the world as each pursued a second U.S. Open title in the day's second-to-last group.
“I think he was a good pairing for [Brooks] today,” Harmon said. “They want to beat each other. Brooks sees that as motivation. That’s where he wants to get to.”
He played like it.
Given the soft conditions, birdies came by the bushel with Fleetwood making four in his first seven holes, and Reed charging up the board, too, with four birdies in his first five. Koepka did his part, with three on the first four holes to set a tone that he would be the determining factor in who held the trophy at day's end.
Then came the test of the back nine. Koepka—whose Open track record now includes a T-4, T-18, T-13, 1st and 1st—passed with just two bogeys, one of which coming on the 72nd hole with the outcome essentially in hand.
“If you could design what this test throws at you, they’re very good at that,” Harmon said of Koepka and Johnson, who ended up finishing third, two strokes back. “It used to it was the characters like Raymond [Floyd] and Curtis [Strange], who were tough and mean. Brooks has a similar demeanor in that nothing bothers him and he’s able to not get too high or too low. We saw his guts and determination with the up-and-downs on 11 and 12 and the putts he had to make.”
It also gave him one more major trophy than Johnson, who has 15 more career wins.
“I don’t know if it evens it up,” said Koepka, who admitted that he has often felt overlooked among the games other young stars. “You see how talented he is. He’s physically gifted. In my mind, he’s probably one of the most talented guys to ever play the game.”
With a second straight U.S. Open title, Koepka’s well on his way, too.