A big-time major gets a big-time winner in Brooks Koepka
May 21, 2023
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Through it all – the injuries, the surgeries, the rehab and sweat, the real tears and haunting inner doubts that left him awake at night – Brooks Koepka never forgot how to win. Especially at a major.
In fact, if golfers carried business cards, his might be: Big Game Brooks.
Built for big events, Koepka rose once again on Sunday at Oak Hill Country Club, one of golf’s most serious exams. A hot start (three early birdies) and a strong final nine carried the 33-year-old Koepka to a final-round, 3-under 67 to secure the 105th PGA Championship, his third PGA title.
Only a bogey after an errant drive at 17, where he pitched out, kept Koepka from finishing double-digits below par on a golf course (7,322 yards, par 70) that let its guard down on Sunday, but only the tiniest bit. How much does Koepka enjoy a big stage? Well, consider: He now owns nine PGA Tour victories, and more than half (five) are majors. In the modern era, only Tiger Woods (15 majors) has performed so comfortably when the heat gets dialed up.
“It feels damned good,” Koepka said, reunited with a Wanamaker Trophy he last held in 2018-19. His winning score was 9-under 271, two shots clear of twenty-somethings Scottie Scheffler and Viktor Hovland. “Yeah, this one is definitely special. I think this one is probably the most meaningful of them all with everything that's gone on, all the crazy stuff over the last few years. But it feels good to be back, and to get No. 5.”
The field around him made him work pretty hard for this one. Koepka would want it no other way. Norway’s Hovland, only 25, pushed him most of the final round playing alongside in the final pairing, finishing with a round of 68. Scheffler, 26, who has not finished out of the top 12 since October, made a late run, which was pretty much expected. Scheffler’s 16-footer for birdie at the last hole gave a round of 65, establishing a record (with four others on Sunday) for low final round in a PGA at Oak Hill’s East Course.
Scheffler said two hard lipouts from his Sunday round (Nos. 1 and 9) will be difficult to erase from his thoughts, but he was proud that he managed to make late Sunday afternoon quite interesting on a Chamber of Commerce day in Rochester.
“I gave the guys on top of the leaderboard something to think about, and I kind of made a little bit of a move, but Brooks just played some fantastic golf this week,” said Scheffler, whose third-round start on Saturday – 4 over though eight – proved costly. “He (Koepka) played too good this weekend for me to catch up to him.”
With so much going on around him, Koepka only had his eyes on the trophy. Two months removed from surrendering a two-shot lead in the final round at the Masters, where he said he did not have the right mindset to finish the deal, Koepka stayed on offense.
He got hot with his irons early, setting up birdies at Nos. 2, 3 and 4. He weathered a mid-round lull, where he encountered three bogeys that allowed others to stick around. And then he surged home, making three birdies in his final seven holes, including a dagger at 16.
Koepka's birdie from in tight at 16 came as Hovland was making a mess of things (a thin 9-iron shot from a right fairway bunker plugged into the grassy bank in front of him, and led to a double). Koepka walked off that green four shots clear with two to play. He would not be denied, using lessons learned from his stumble at Augusta to finish strong. An easy two-putt par from close range at 18 delivered a moment he had worked hard to revisit.
“I always learned more from the four times I finished second than the now five times, I guess, that I’ve won,” Koepka said. He did not sleep after his Sunday tumble at the Masters, where he shot 75. “Failure is how you learn. Mentally, you can figure things out. The only key is being open and honest with yourself.”
Hovland was inside the top 3 heading into Sunday for the third consecutive major (Open Championship, Masters, PGA) and continues to build toward becoming a major force. Hovland’s short game used to expose him, but he has worked to turn it into an asset.
“It sucks right now,” Hovland said, “but it is really cool to see that things are going the right direction. If I just keep taking care of my business and just keep working on what I've been doing, I think we're going to get one of these soon.
Koepka slipped at home shortly after competing in the Waste Management Phoenix Open early in 2021, and in trying to frantically shift his kneecap back into proper alignment, shattered it. There were times in his difficult rehabilitation that just trying to bend the knee would render him to tears.
But in late 2022 and into the new year, he slowly has returned to being Brooks Koepka. His surgically-repaired knee now is strong enough to let him fully load onto his right side, and from there, his effortless power has returned.
Koepka showed a complete game at Oak Hill, which is required. He drove it well, led the field in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green on Sunday (finishing fifth for the week), was 13th in putting and, when he missed greens, he scrambled well (getting up and down 19 of 28 times, ranking fourth).
“This is one of the hardest golf courses in the world, and when they set it up like this, it’s one of the hardest major championship tests there is,” said Koepka’s longtime coach, Claude Harmon III. “He felt like he was going to have a chance to win, and he played really poorly on Thursday (shooting 72), and he didn’t panic.
“Having what happened to him at Augusta, it would have been easy for him to panic. I think he’s in a place, and a space, where he knows he’s playing good. He knows he’s a closer. He didn’t get it done on Sunday at Augusta, but he knows he’s a closer. And everybody else knows he’s a closer, too.”
Club Professional Michael Block of California, who made an ace alongside Rory McIlroy on Sunday at No. 15 and shot 71 to finish T-15, the best finish by a club pro in the PGA in 40 years, was the darling of the crowd at Oak Hill on Sunday, finishing off a magical week. “Beers on Block!” the fans yelled off the 18th green. Koepka ranked right up there with the Rochester crowd, too. Three of his five majors have been won in New York.
Asked if the PGA should return to Oak Hill, Koepka flashed that big, bright grin of his “I’ll come back anytime,” he said.
Yes, Big Game Brooks was back.