U.S. Open 2019: Brooks Koepka is on the verge of an unfathomable third-straight U.S. Open
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Everywhere you went Saturday night, all people wanted to talk about was Brooks Koepka, seven under par and four shots back of Gary Woodland but smack-dab in this thing. Brandel Chamblee was on Golf Channel, comparing the remarkable similarities between Koepka’s swing and that of Hale Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open winner. On a GOLF.com podcast hosted by Sean Zak, Koepka warranted significant airtime while the two other 7-unders, Chez Reavie and Louis Oosthuizen, barely got a mention.
Paul Azinger, the Fox golf analyst, was supping in The Lodge, and considering Willie Anderson’s gravesite, in Philadelphia, laid to rest at age 31. The Scotsman’s name is in the air here because Koepka is trying to do what Anderson did, win three straight U.S. Opens.
Next to Azinger was Curtis Strange, also of Fox, eating his soup and talking Koepka. Strange won consecutive U.S. Opens, in 1988 and 1989, and was about the first person to congratulate Koepka last year on when he did the same. Koepka won the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. Anderson, a native Scot, won his three straight (just so you can impress your dad at your Father’s Day brunch) in 1903, 1904 and 1905. He was the first of four men to win the Open four times.
Koepka was a study in composure on Saturday, as he has been most of the week. On Wednesday afternoon, in a cool gloom, he played a slow practice round with the Danish golfer Lucas Bjerregaard, telling jokes and sharing stories and clipping a few fingernails while waiting to play off the 8th tee. As for the 3-wood second shot he played on 18 on Saturday, attempting a slice shot from a hook lie with the ocean left and a grandstand right, he said, “Yeah, it was difficult.” (He made par.) This guy does nonchalant like nobody in the game today. His 68 was nearly perfect — 15 pars, three birdies.
He’s going to need some help from Woodland and from Justin Rose, who is one shot behind the leader, to pull this thing off, but he knows how hard it is to lead. Witness what happened en route to Koepka’s victory at the PGA Championship last month at Bethpage Black. Through three rounds, he had a seven-shot lead. At one point, Dustin Johnson trailed by just one.
Compare that to his 2018 win at Shinnecock Hills, where Sunday began with a four-way tie for first. Koepka’s final-round 68 allowed him to win by one, but all day long it was anyone’s ballgame. Asked after the PGA which way is harder to win, Koepka said (and Gary Woodland should not read this next part):
“I think playing with a lead is a little bit tougher. I think playing with the lead is a different feeling. It is. It’s very difficult. You want to extend it. But also, you’re not trying to come back to the field, so every time you make a bogey, you’re kind of thinking, ‘I’m bringing everybody back, I’m bringing everybody back; I keep coming back. Why am I doing this? What’s going on?’”
Sunday promises to be interesting. Koepka almost surely will not disappear.
Saturday night, he had this telling exchange with a reporter, who asked this: “You said earlier this week if the other guys saw your name up there, they’d say, `Not again.’ Do you think they’re saying that?
“You can ask them,” Koepka said.
That won’t be necessary. Pebble Beach, with the U.S. Open trophy dangling out there, will ask that question of all the contenders.