By the end of a pretty Saturday, Koepka had a look in the rearview to a cluster of men excellent enough to be 5 under yet still trail by a yawning seven strokes heading into the final round. Even more daunting while also more thrilling, the 29-year-old Floridian promised to bring back to the course Sunday his considerable mind as he hunts a preposterous fourth major title.
“Well, I’m definitely not going to let up, I promise you that,” he said. “I’m just trying to hit the best possible shot I can at the time.”
To recap, Koepka emerged from the thick ranks of the skillful and semi-anonymous at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, where he won by four after starting Sunday trailing by one upon a populous leader board. Those who didn’t know him figured that might be it for him. Four majors after that, he won the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where he woke up on the final day tied for the lead before the kind of closing 68 Shinnecock seldom permits.
Two majors after that, he won the 2018 PGA Championship in St. Louis after breakfasting on Sunday with a two-shot lead he treated without tremble. Two majors after that, after finishing a deeply impressive second at the 2019 Masters, he has strangled this thing here at Bethpage’s monstrous Black Course, giving him a further fresh way to approach a major Sunday: with a huge lead at 12 under par. It prompted a rational question about how one treats that psychologically.
“I don’t need a sports psychologist,” he said in his matter-of-fact way without a smidgen of arrogance. “I’m pretty good at it. I know what I’m doing. I feel like — it’s simpler than what guys think. Guys make the mistake of trying to figure out, when they get to a major, what’s going on, what’s different. It’s not. It’s just focus. It’s grind it out, suck it up and move on. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes; it’s a major championship. You know that’s going to happen, and guys have a hard time letting that go.”
Textbook evidence came Saturday at the par-5 No. 13, where Koepka drove the ball way off to the right, seemingly near various sets of squirrel families. He knew something like that was going to happen; he did not have a hard time letting it go. From the woods, 315 yards from the hole, he found a little lane to send one 197 yards but into the snarling primary rough. (Asked on Friday why he has excelled from the rough here, the statuesque Koepka said, “That’s why I go to the gym.”)
He shipped one to 17 feet and made a birdie
— from the forest.
Piled atop Koepka’s booming drives landing in serial fairways, his iron game with its musculature when rough happens, his generally cocksure putting, his abiding calm and his lack of even one double bogey amid a field with 155 of them, it seemed unfair.
Nobody in major golf history has lost a seven-shot lead after three rounds, even if someone (Paul Lawrie) once won one after starting a Sunday 10 shots back (at the 1999 British Open). In what looks like the asterisk division of the leader board, the four-way tie for second place featured a mix of people with voluminous major history and almost zero major history: 2016 U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson, 28-year-old pro Harold Varner III, 34-year-old pro Luke List and a 23-year-old from Thailand who turned pro at age 15, Jazz Janewattananond.
Of those, Varner proved most eloquent Saturday at what became the duty of the others: describing Koepka.
“The first thing that comes to mind is I think it’s great for golf,” Varner said. “If you don’t go to sleep and think, ‘Man, this makes me want to work harder, if I can be that good,’ then I don’t know why you’re playing. I don’t know. You can’t sit there and just weep and be like, ‘He’s so much better.’ I think that’s going to push you. It almost pisses me off. That’s what I think.”
Volunteering his own grapples with focus, Varner said: “Man, he’s pretty focused, unlike myself. He’s on it, obviously. I mean, he’s really good at golf.”
“I see a lot of like, you know, kind of myself, as far as, hits it long, hits it straight,” Johnson said. “You know, he’s good everywhere. Obviously, to be one of the best players in the world you’ve got to have a good all-around game.”
“He’s a good golfer, isn’t he?” said Matt Wallace, the Englishman standing in sixth at 4 under. “That’s pretty much plain and simple. When you’ve got the ball under control like he does and he’s putting great and chipping and putting and everything’s perfect, that kind of happens. Tiger [Woods] did it. I remember [Colin Montgomerie] saying nobody was ever going to catch Tiger at the  Masters that he won, and this is pretty much the same.”
Also speaking on the subject of Koepka was Rory McIlroy as he awaited further company at four major titles. “It’s awesome. It’s so good. It’s great to watch,” said McIlroy, 14 shots back at 2 over. “I watched most of it [Friday] afternoon. He’s definitely, in these events, playing on a different level than most anyone else.”
For further commentary on the subject of Koepka, why not a five-time major winner? Said Phil Mickelson, 18 shots back at 6 over: “I just have a lot of respect for him and his game and how hard he works and the process he went through after he left amateur golf as a pro to make it out here. . . . And he’s playing some remarkable golf. It’s not easy. It’s really not an easy test.”
Finally, as Koepka walked by toward the interview room, with one day to go toward becoming the first player to hold back-to-back titles in two separate majors, his father, Bob, a former college baseball player, spoke congenially to a gaggle of reporters by the putting green.
“He’s always been one who has been very determined about what he wants to do,” the father said. “I think when someone tells him he can’t do something, that just makes him more determined.”
Along his path to the PGA Tour via the European Tour, Koepka had spent ample time slighted. “He wants to prove to everyone that he can be the best player,” Bob Koepka said. “He was overlooked. I mean, let’s face it.” People used to say “the only two that could compete with Tiger were Rory and D.J.”
“You tell me,” he said as his son prepared to run out of slights.