FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Brooks Koepka, that giant, has overridden the usual major golf Sunday horror by surging from one shot back on a bustling leader board (2017), by muscling from a morning tie on a churlish course (2018), by hanging on to a two-shot lead with a capital-T Tiger chasing (2018 again) and now, as of Sunday here, by prevailing on one of those occasions when the stomach and the central nervous system must feel something like a train station.
At 6 p.m.
On a Friday.
What happened at a moody Bethpage Black on a gusty final round beneath glum skies at the 101st PGA Championship must have sent pulse rates haywire among those who love Koepka, the remarkable 29-year-old from South Florida. His two-shot win at 8-under-par 272 over his friend and workout bud Dustin Johnson, after Johnson forged a herculean 69 to Koepka’s harrowing 74, not only gave Koepka an absurd fourth major title in his past eight attempts. It not only cemented him as great with a long trail left ahead. It not only made him the first male player to hold back-to-back titles in two major events simultaneously, given his 2017 and 2018 U.S. Open wins and his 2018 and 2019 PGA mirths. It not only placed him, at four majors, alongside such names of lore as Raymond Floyd, Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy, Tom Morris Sr. and Tom Morris Jr.
It not only left Koepka saying of his past 23 months: “Well, it’s been incredibly quick. I know that. It’s been so much fun these last, what is it, two years? It’s incredible. I don’t think I even thought I was going to do it that fast. I don’t think anybody did, and to be standing here today with four majors, it’s mind-blowing.”
No, it also offered a vivid glimpse of excruciation, if that’s your thing.
That’s one of golf’s things.
It sent addled viewers leafing disbelievingly through the records to see whether anybody ever lost a seven-shot lead after 54 holes of a major tournament.
Nobody had, in 449 major tournaments dating back to 1860.
Koepka won this major when things went from humdrum to hairy, when a seven-shot lead at dawn eroded to one by near-dusk, when a six-shot lead at 4:49 p.m. Eastern daylight time stood at one at 5:52, when his last eight holes creaked with five bogeys and three pars and a closing hole too adventurous for digestive peace, and when this strapping 6-foot gym buff with the brawny brain to match somehow went from humming sports car to a jalopy spewing parts.
“I wasn’t nervous. I was just in shock,” he said of the nightmarish crux of it. Somehow, after a round of virtuoso lag putts and lead preservation, he had bogeyed Nos. 11, 12, 13 and 14. He had ventured into sand, rough, foliage and forestry. He had lofted balls the wind spat back. Johnson had birdied No. 15 with a spotless 11-footer. The margin had cratered to one, at 9 under par to 8 under par. The fans around No. 14 began chanting about a player not even present, not even in Koepka’s pairing. “DJ! DJ! DJ!” they sneered in Johnson’s favor, and when they did that, they riled Koepka’s mettle. They returned him to a position he knows snugly from an early career of surmounting setbacks: that of the slighted.
If golf exposes your innards for public viewing, Koepka’s guts again shone. He relished the chant. He fed off it. He described it with his characteristic, refreshing bluntness. “It’s New York,” he said. “What do you expect when you’re half-choking it away? . . . I think I kind of deserved it. . . . I’ve been to sporting events in New York. I know how it goes. . . . It was at a perfect time because I was just thinking, ‘Okay, all right, I’ve got everybody against me. Let’s go.’”
Just about then, Johnson stood dauntingly amid the 16th fairway, 194 yards from the hole. It didn’t seem the day could swerve again, but it did. “You know, wind was howling in my face a little bit off the right,” said Johnson, who won the 2016 U.S. Open and just became the 10th player to finish runner-up in all four majors. “. . . I hit a 5-iron, but I almost went back and got a 4-iron because I didn’t think the 5 was going to even come close, based on the shots that I’ve hit, earlier in the round, into the wind. The wind was just really eating the ball up when you’re hitting into it.”
This particular peevish shot laughed its way over the green and down a slope. It made it a feat that Johnson soon got back to within seven feet of par. “Just I don’t know how it flew 200 yards into the wind like that,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Koepka smashed his drive on No. 15 350 yards into the fairway. As he walked from that tee, he could see Johnson over on the No. 16 green, and while he could not see how Johnson’s seven-foot par putt went straight and then veered right howlingly, the mass groans clued him. He led by two. “You’ve got to reset,” he said.
On the par-3 No. 17, Johnson blasted his tee shot over the green, made bogey, saw the deficit widen to three and saw the lingering hope deflate. By the time Koepka got to No. 17 himself, his immovable countenance had subsided to an electric smile, while Johnson smacked his way around No. 18 into the bunker and gallery, his eventual par a sign of recovery might.
Yet as Koepka already had been reaching out and slapping hands with fans between holes, he also three-putted No. 17 from 40 feet. What in the . . .? He got to his 72nd hole needing to avoid his first double bogey. He savaged the tee shot awry enough that he extended his arm leftward as a warning until it landed in a malevolent combination of sand and weeds and downhill slope. Suspense hung on.
He popped it out and faced another juncture that would maul the stomachs of many, 67 yards to home. Yet when he struck a Mozart of a shot to the green, five feet from the hole, then plunked down that woolly par, he became an even larger American sports star, one who had averted a slew of future winces and cringes, one who could say, “It was very, very stressful, that last hour and a half of that round,” and one who could treat that bygone stress as the root of exhilaration because, as he said, “I know for a fact that was the most excited I’ve ever been in my life.”
— Chuck Culpepper
No. 18 (par 4, 412 yards): Koepka’s tee shot left him with an awful adventure, but he held off Johnson, his good friend, for a two-stroke victory.
No. 17 (par 3, 206): Johnson closed out the day with a 69 and finished six-under, but Koepka amped up the drama at 17, missing a par putt and setting for a bogey. Koepka: 8-under, two-stroke lead
No. 16 (par 4, 480 yards): The wind suddenly settled down and so did Koepka, staying the course. Koepka: 9-under, three-stroke lead.
No. 15 (par 4, 467 yards): Koepka came up with just what he needed, a shot straight down the fairway. Over on 16, Johnson could muster only a bogey, offering Koepka a great opportunity. Instead, his 29-foot birdie putt came up two feet short. His streak of four bogeys ended and Johnson’s bogey at 17 meant that Koepka led by three with three holes to play. Koepka: 9-under, three-stroke lead
No. 14 (par 3, 149 yards): Koepka clearly knew his friend was making a move, but he kept his head down as he walked the course. If he ever needed a birdie, it was with a long putt here. It was not to be and he was left with losing a stroke for a fourth straight hole as Johnson was catching fire. And the lead was one, with Koepka three over for the day and Johnson three under. Koepka: 9-under, one-stroke lead
No. 13 (par 5, 608 yards): Koepka did what he had studiously avoided all tournament, sending his shot way, way off line behind the gallery. Suddenly, it felt a little as if Koepka was beginning to be hanging on for dear life and hoping that Johnson, his best friend, couldn’t capitalize. His next shot from the crowd came up against the wind and landed about 150 yards from the hole. He crept closer and his par putt from almost six feet lipped out. For the third straight hole, he dropped a shot and, with Johnson’s birdie at 15, the lead shrank to two. At least he still has some to spare. Koepka: 10-under, two-stroke lead
No. 12 (par 4, 498 yards): With conditions beginning to feel more like the British Open than the PGA Championship, Koepka found the rough stuff just to the right of the fairway. He managed the situation, as he had all day when he found himself in a bit of trouble, and ended up dropping a shot for the second straight hole. Johnson couldn’t capitalize, though. Koepka: 11-under, four-stroke lead
No. 11 (par 4, 428 yards): Koepka stumbled: his tee shot found sand; his third lost a battle with the 20-mph steady wind and wound up on the edge of the green. His fourth left him with about a seven-footer for bogey. Koepka: 12-under, five-stroke lead
Meanwhile, over on 17, Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard, playing in his first PGA Championship aced the par-3, 206-yard hole.
No. 10 (par 4, 500 yards): Johnson blinked first, finding sand on the 11th hole and dropping a stroke to fall to 7-under while Koepka smoked his tee shot at 10 down the fairway. If Koepka was feeling heat from Johnson, it wasn’t evident on the 10th hole. With a fierce wind blowing, he blasted his second shot and very nearly found the cup, leaving him with a putt of about a foot. He converted and expanded his lead. Koepka: 13-under, six-stroke lead
No. 9 (par 4, 470 yards): Koepka despised his second shot, which ended up on the edge of the green, a good 50 feet from the hole. Koepka left it about an inch shy of the cup and tapped in for par. Koepka: 12-under.
No. 8 (par 3, 199 yards): Up ahead on 9, Johnson continued to press on the toughest holes of the course (7-12) and gave Koepka something to think about, moving to 8-under (3-under for the day) and trimming Koepka’s lead to four. Koepka ended up with a 36-foot putt for birdie and settled for par. Koepka: 12-under, four-stroke lead
No. 7 (par 4, 527 yards): Koepka’s second shot hit a tree but behaved itself, staying just on the edge of the green and leaving him with a 45-foot putt for birdie. He missed it, but his par putt was true. With the wind blowing and the chances of anyone making a run seeming slim, Koepka remained even for the day and that might be all that’s needed. Koepka: 12-under
No. 6 (par 4, 395 yards): Maybe Johnson found a little space in Koepka’s head. Maybe it was the wind. Or the nerves. Or all of the aforementioned because Koepka again found the rough off the tee. This being Koepka, he found the green. His 41-foot putt for birdie missed to the side, but his putt for par was good. Koepka: 12-under
No. 5 (par 4, 481 yards): In the face of a stiffening wind, the Goodyear blimp sought cover. Koepka’s shot off the tee landed in the left rough, not a great place to be, and he sent his second shot into the fringe just off the green. Could have been worse, as Varner found out. His shot sailed just up against the gallery. Up ahead of them on No. 6, Johnson collected another birdie and moved to 7-under, giving Koepka something to think about. Koepka left the fifth happy with par. Koepka: 12-under.
No. 4 (par 5, 524 yards): Koepka (stop us if you’ve heard this one before) hits his tee shot straight down the fairway. Varner finds trouble in the tall (and we do mean tall) grass off the tee, hitting his ball at a 45-degree angle off into the trees. The ball is MIA and Varner is sliding down the leader board, now 10 strokes back. Koepka left his 26-foot uphill putt for eagle just short, and settled for a birdie that put him back at where he started the day. Koepka: 12-under
No. 3 (par 3, 223 yards): Varner gave back the stroke he’d picked up on the first hole, and then some. He double-bogeyed the hole and dropped into a tie at 4-under. Johnson moved up into sole possession of second place at six-under. Koepka, still settled, managed par. Koepka: 11-under
No. 2 (par 4, 389 yards): After dropping two strokes with his bogey and his partner’s birdie, both Koepka and Harold Varner III settled down on the second hole. Both emerged with par and Koepka’s lead held at five strokes. Koepka: 11-under
No. 1 (par 4, 430 yards): Right off the bat, a fan tried to rattle Koepka, muttering, “Little windy out there, Brooksie.” Koepka opened precisely the way he would not have preferred: with a bogey on the first hole. Varner found the fairway and managed a birdie that chipped away at Koepka’s lead. And just like that, Koepka’s seven-stroke lead entering play was down to five, with Varner alone in second place. Koepka: 11-under
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