At the 105th PGA Championship, a familiar face charges to the top
May 20, 2023
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Brooks Koepka lost his health for a couple of seasons, shattering his knee in 2021, but his confidence never has wandered very far. Saturday at the 105th PGA Championship, Koepka, healthy again after two years of rehabilitation, was where he seems to be most comfortable, sitting way up high in a big tournament.
No golfer seems to enjoy the hunt of big game more than Koepka. In a two-year window, he collected four majors. With steady daylong rains subsiding for most of the late afternoon on Saturday at Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course, Koepka heated up with the putter, and with every birdie he canned his confidence strengthened. A day after shooting 31 on the back nine, he came one shot from matching it. The result was a round of 4-under 66, two shots better than any other round turned in on Saturday, and his reward was a one-shot lead headed into the final round.
There is some major power up on the leaderboard. Koepka, 33, will be trying to lock down his third PGA title and fifth major title. At 6-under 204, he leads Norway’s Viktor Hovland (70) and Canada’s Corey Conners (70) by a shot heading into Sunday. Bryson DeChambeau (70) fought hard, overcoming a double bogey at the difficult sixth hole, to stay three back.
Two other major winners – Justin Rose (69) and Scottie Scheffler (73) – will be chasing from four back. Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner, will begin Sunday four shots behind Koepka after his second consecutive 69.
Koepka, 31, made four putts of 12 feet of better in his round, three of them producing birdies on his incoming nine as he took charge of the tournament. The highlight came at the par-4 17th, where a putt from 47 feet crashed into the back of the cup and fell, setting off a very pro-Koepka card.
“It felt good. Felt like it was a bit more aggressive today. Especially on the back nine, and putts started banging in the back of the hole, especially the one on 17 … that doesn't go in, that's probably 6, 8 feet by. But it's tough, man, with the rain. Moisture on the greens, slowing them up. I felt like I was a lot more aggressive than I was the previous two days on the greens.”
The numbers showed it: Koepka made 131 feet of putts, which was more than his first two rounds combined.
Koepka took a two-shot lead into the final round at the Masters too years ago, but faltered in the final round, something he vows will not happen again. He will have plenty of challengers on an Oak Hill track that is softened by Saturday’s rains and could be friendlier to those giving pursuit. Winning another major would be a significant accomplishment.
Conners, 31, played great until he ran into a double bogey at the 16th hole, plugging his second shot under the lip of a fairway bunker. He and Hovland will be seeking their first major titles. Hovland, 25, continues to emerge as a top global player, and has been a factor into Sunday in each of the last three major championships.
Is he ready for the moment? Hovland believes he is.
“Any chance you have to play in the final group in a Sunday on a major, that's pretty special,” he said. “But the mindset is just going to be I play my own game, and obviously I want to win, but I am just going to play what I think is the right play on every single shot. If I get beat, I get beat, but the plan is to not give it away.”
Oak Hill and Mother Nature forced players into a survival mindset on Saturday, as players dealt with cold rains that rendered the course – already monstrously long as a par 70 at nearly 7,400 yards – play even longer. (“These guys are not used to hitting woods into par 4s,” said Golf Channel analyst Paul McGinley). There were birdies for those getting tee shots into the fairways, but playing out of the rough proved downright brutal. Players from Adam Scott to Justin Rose played with hats turned backwards to keep water from dripping down the bills of their caps as they stood over putts.
“You get out there, you're not going to get away with anything, but you just have to keep your head down and grind out every possible shot you can,” said Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, who, with a round of 68, climbed 25 spots into a tie for 10th.
Club Professional Michael Block, who teaches at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo, California, continued to be a huge fan favorite, shooting a third consecutive 70 to move into a tie for eighth. He enjoyed his Saturday pairing alongside Rose, and on Sunday, he gets McIlroy.
“I'm a PGA member that loves the game more than anything, and I'm sitting here right now absolutely blown away by this experience,” said Block, 46, a 10-time Southern California PGA Player of the Year and winner of the 2014 PGA Professional Championship. He had played in four previous PGAs but never made the cut. “At the same time I'm blown away by how my game has actually shown up. My game that I've always had.”
Saturday’s biggest surprise may have been the performance of Scheffler, who along with Jon Rahm has been the game’s most consistent performer this season, not finishing worse than 12th since October. He struggled at the outset, making bogeys on four of his first eight holes to slide down the board. But he collected himself nicely. At the ninth, he made a key par save, and by the 12th hole, he could sense his swing was back in rhythm. He was proud of how he battled to a 73 on a tough day.
At four back, on a golf course that is playing very difficult, he’ll have a chance on Sunday.
“I feel like I've hung in there the last three days to give myself a chance,” Scheffler said. “I haven't felt a hundred percent with my swing. Going into tomorrow, I felt like I started to drive the ball well on the back nine, and hitting the fairways is going to be extremely important in terms of trying to make a run at the guys on top of the leaderboard tomorrow. … I feel very good going into tomorrow.”