ST. LOUIS — Prior to the third round of the PGA Championship, Brooks Koepka and his guns went to a gym to work out with his good friend Dustin Johnson. Coming off back-to-back U.S. Open victories, Koepka stood in a corner and watched as gym goer after gym goer approached and … asked Johnson for picture after picture.
“They were like, ‘Did you see that No. 1 player in the world was here?’ ” Koepka said. “They were talking about him as we left and I was just standing there laughing. It’s like, yeah, OK. I don’t know what to say to that.”
The 28-year-old Koepka can laugh, because while Johnson may have the No. 1 ranking, he has the majors. Three now, to Johnson’s one, after winning a thrilling PGA Championship at Bellerive Golf Club by two strokes over Tiger Woods.
Being overlooked has sort of become Koepka’s trademark. Maybe it’s because of his low-key nature, or that his girlfriend isn’t the daughter of hockey’s greatest player or, in the case of Sunday’s brilliant 66, it came on a day Woods cemented his return. Koepka seems perpetually in someone else’s shadow.
“I use it as motivation,” he said after the third round that had him the leader by two. “You can’t hide when you’re on the top of the leaderboard. You can’t hide my name.”
For most of Sunday, Woods cast a shadow on the entire tournament, and not just because he was there, but because he was producing the first real meaningful “Tiger Moments” since his return from back surgery(-ies). You know the kind. There’s the Finger Point at the 2000 PGA. The Chip In at No. 16 at the 2005 Masters. The upper-cut fist pumps everywhere.
Sunday’s first came came via an out-of-nowhere, potentially tournament ending shank that morphed into a birdie. After yanking his drive at 9 into the gallery on the right side, Woods faced an impossible angle to the green, with the pin tucked into the left corner. Winding up, Woods unleashed a massive swing, hooking the ball around the trees in front of him, onto the green and … just 17 feet from the pin. The energy that followed his march to the green exploded when he drained the putt, eliciting a vintage fist pump.
At that moment, he was just one shot off the lead.
For all the grief the PGA Championship endures for being the so-called lamest major, Sunday’s final round produced enough drama to fill a “Real Housewives” script. There was Justin Thomas plunking a guy in the head, then making birdie; there was Koepka following up back-to-back bogeys with three straight birdies … all on his front nine; there was even Gary Woodland damaging the hole at 12 when he nearly holed his approach, causing a 10-minute delay while groundskeepers raced onto the green to repair it. And, of course, there was Tiger Woods, who couldn’t hit a fairway on the front nine — not one — yet somehow made the turn at 3-under par.
His return, not just to the course but to contention, is measured in decibels and dollars and Nielsen ratings. He’s why Michael Phelps could walk anonymously around Bellerive on Sunday, fans too busy looking for their next vantage point to care about the most decorated Summer Olympian walking amongst them.
Tiger started the day four back of Koepka, and despite the flailing off the tee on the front nine and some more on the back, Tiger kept turning back the clock — with a lengthy birdie putt on 12 and another at 13, to move him within one of the lead.
It was most definitely on.
But even with the gallery willing him on — to a final round 64 — there was no slowing down Koepka.
Low key only in personality, Koepka kept proving that his victory at the 2017 U.S. Open was 100 percent notification of a golfer on the come up. You don’t win back-to-back U.S. Opens on a fluke. So his spot atop the leaderboard throughout the weekend at Bellerive wasn’t surprising to anyone. And neither was his steel to stay there despite the charge of the red-cladded legend, whose birdie on 18 moved him into a tie for second.
For Woods, this will be a tournament of what ifs, which is always the case when you lose, but in this case, they won’t go away quickly. During Saturday’s third round, he missed eight straight birdie putts, including a 3-putt on 17 that turned a potential eagle into a hugely disappointing par. The string continued Sunday when he had a birdie putt on No. 1 lip out. Then there was 11, when his birdie opportunity slammed on the brakes on the lip of the cup, only unlike 2005 at the Masters, it didn’t drop. And 14, when his putt to salvage par lipped out. And …
How many "what if?" moments does that make for Tiger? I've lost track.
— Dan Jenkins (@danjenkinsgd) August 12, 2018
But even after the bogey at 14, Tiger was not done, because Tiger Woods does not play for second. He stuck his approach at 15 to 18 inches.
“Yeah,” he said to himself through gritted teeth.
He shook off a par (that felt like a bogey) at 17 with that birdie at 18. And when he walked off the course, up and over the players’ stairway above the crowd, he turned to see a gathering of thousands staring up at him. He gave a thumbs up and smiled.
For all his anonymity, for all the overshadowing and overlooking and over whatever, Koepka cannot be ignored anymore. There are now five players who have won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same year: Gene Sarazan, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and … Brooks Koepka.
Sure, one of them is not like the others. Not yet anyway. Because while it doesn’t feel like Koepka belongs on this list, feel has nothing to do with it. Results will ultimately dictate. And right now, it’s hard to argue against the results Brooks Koepka keeps on posting.
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