SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Brooks Koepka warned everybody. Anyone who wanted the U.S. Open trophy would have to pry it out of his clenched, brawny arms. “I feel like you got to kind of take it from me, to be honest with you,” he said. They tried in all manner of ways to get it from him, none more so than Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, who nearly pickpocketed it with his early record-tying 63. Koepka withstood it all to become the first repeat winner in nearly 30 years.
Koepka had the swagger of a linebacker and the face of a rock formation, and he needed both to deal with the various pressures of this Open. There was that chronic ruffling wind. There was the course itself, the par-70 Shinnecock Hills, built like a series of switchbacks. There was the stress of fighting back from 7 over par, which was where Koepka found himself in the second round. There was the torment inflicted by the U.S. Golf Association, which mowed and pressed the greens until they were cruelly fast. Then there were his pursuers across a course that became suddenly yielding Sunday. Through it all, Koepka was an unshakable presence, stalking through a nerve-shredding final round of 68 that gave him a one-stroke victory but made him a multiple champion.
“The U.S. Open just takes so much discipline,” Koepka said. “. . . You have got to just kind of let things roll off your back. . . . I enjoy the test. I enjoy being pushed to the limit. Sometimes you feel like you are about to break mentally, but that’s what I enjoy. I enjoy hard golf courses. I enjoy playing about the toughest in golf you are ever going to play.”
What Koepka established this week is that his game is about far more than just toughness or strength. He is as complete a talent as there is. Since the World War II era, only two men had defended their Open titles, Ben Hogan (1950-51) and Curtis Strange (1988-89), and only six in history. Koepka’s feat is as interesting as any of them because of the radically different kinds of courses he won on and tests that he faced.
Last year’s Open was a scorefest on a young Erin Hills course with wide fairways and a winning score of 16 under. Shinnecock was an entirely different affair, one of the oldest courses in America and most traditional, a narrow, winding, unforgiving track that pros regard as among the most difficult and strategic in the world. It required the ability to shape the ball from every direction with every club and the mental durability to survive high scores. Throw in the weather and the wind and the USGA’s conditioning of the course, and it was an all but unbearable exercise for many here.
“It battered us on Thursday and Friday morning and Saturday afternoon,” Fleetwood said.
The penitent USGA watered the greens Saturday night and again Sunday morning and also relented on the pin positions, which for three days had teetered on sidehills and steep precipices, after many players complained. Not Koepka. “You start complaining, you’re looking for excuses,” he said.
Suddenly on Sunday the USGA offered up the course like a plate of cookies. The result was a sudden rash of scoring and charges from multiple players. Off went Fleetwood, who set the grass on fire with his 63 that included six 3s on his back nine. “It was hard to miss,” Koepka said. “It was the reddest lowest number up there.”
Fleetwood, a 27-year-old with lambent blue eyes and the locks and touch of a musician, ran in putts from all over the softened greens. He almost hit flagstick with his approach on the sixth hole, and at the 12th, he lofted a wedge to three feet that seemed to float in the air. He came to the 18th hole with a chance to establish the all-time scoring record, and from the fairway he cut a beautiful 6-iron that settled to eight feet. “That was a shot I fancied to pull off,” he said. Only a swerve of a millimeter prevented him from carding a 62. As it was, he settled for joining Johnny Miller as the only men to shoot a 63 in the final round of an Open. “Yeah, but I wanted 62,” he said. More importantly, that missed edge was the eventual difference between a playoff and a loss.
“Obviously that’s the putt that will play on your mind because that was the last shot you hit, and that was your chance,” he said.
Fleetwood was off the course by 4 p.m., the leader in the clubhouse at 2 over for the week. He settled in for a long wait to see whether he had won the tournament.
Koepka had started the day in a four-way tie at 3 over, but he birdied three of the first five holes to grab a fluctuating lead. His playing partner, friend and fellow U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson was playing with an unthreatening dullness, having lost the edge on his putter. Third-round co-leaders Tony Finau and Daniel Berger were struggling with nerves and bogeys.
But then the charges started coming. Masters champion Patrick Reed birdied his first three holes and five of the first seven to shoot 31 on the front. The lanky, quicksilver talent Finau found himself to make four birdies in seven holes around the turn. At the 14th, he struck a wedge that drew toward the hole as if it was magnetized.
The moment of truth for Koepka came at the merciless par-3 11th hole, an uphill, partly blind, into the crosswinds affair. Koepka missed the green and found the long fescue 40 feet from the flag. Henrik Stenson, standing on the 12th tee, looked over and knew that Koepka “was in trouble.”
At that moment, “I felt I could have easily been derailed,” Koepka said.With little room to work, he purposely ran his wedge shot all the way across green to a bunker. Then he lofted his sand shot about 12 feet and proceeded to stroke the putt in so confidently that it rattled. It was a critical bogey that limited damage.
“To be honest with you, I would have taken double,” he said. “. . . It could have been a big momentum shift there, and we could have been playing tennis just going back and forth.”
Six players were bunched, separated by no more than three strokes. But each of them gradually fell away in the face of Koepka’s consistency. Reed lost his momentum with consecutive bogeys at 11 and 12. Johnson three-putted at the 11th and the 14th. Finau bogeyed the 12th. Meanwhile Koepka saved pars from the fescue at the 12th and again at the 14th, lashing away long skeins of grass with his clubface.
Finally, at the 16th hole, Koepka created some breathing room for himself. His 129-yard wedge drifted right above the flagstick, so close that his ball flirted with wrapping itself in the flag before it dropped to 31/2 feet. The putt was right in the center, to give himself a two-stroke lead with two to play.
The tournament had come down to himself and Fleetwood in the clubhouse. He had a stroke to give, and he needed it. His 200-yard approach into the bowl of the 18th hole went left and hit the bleachers and rebounded to a mowed collection area. But his wedge shot to 16 feet was just fine, and all he had to do was avoid a three-putt. Fleetwood, watching on television and hoping for a playoff, only could admire the work.
“The best players in the world are up there trying to win a U.S. Open, and watching them down the stretch, you’ve got nothing but respect for how well Brooks did,” Fleetwood said. “Just to hole the putts at the right time. He kept it together. . . . It wasn’t great for me, but it was great as a golfer to watch how he did it and watch how he closed it out.”