Brooks Koepka won the PGA in 10 seconds — but it hurt to get there

Brooks Koepka won his fifth major championship at Oak Hill on Sunday.

Brooks Koepka won his fifth major championship at Oak Hill on Sunday.

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Ten seconds.

That’s all it took for Brooks Koepka to strike the finishing blow at the 2023 PGA Championship.

By the time he arrived at the 16th hole on Sunday, Koepka had distanced himself from the rest of a stacked field to the point. He’d begun the day a shot ahead of a rabid chase pack; now only Viktor Hovland remained, 8 under par to Koepka’s 9.

Both players blocked their tee shots right of the fairway but wound up in distinctly different spots. Koepka’s just carried the bunker and nestled into the rough, but Hovland’s settled in the bunker, where he drew an awkward lie: the ball was below his feet and a high bunker lip was directly in his way. Things went sideways from there; his 9-iron never got close to clearing and careened into the face of the bunker instead, embedding in the grass wall. The ball glared back at him from there. His tournament hopes had suddenly buried halfway underground.

While Hovland spent the next several minutes trying to sort out how to take a drop — he was entitled to relief for a plugged lie but it was tough to figure out where that relief would be — Koepka stood motionless up ahead, occasionally glancing back in his direction but mostly staring off into the distance. Eventually they worked through it, Hovland took his drop and chopped sideways into the fairway.

Koepka’s caddie Ricky Elliott had taken the wedge from his hands a few minutes into Hovland’s ruling, just to ensure his guy could reset. As Hovland played, he gave it back. And just 10 seconds after Hovland’s ball came trickling to a stop, Koepka sent his soaring toward the green. It happened so fast the crowd was caught by surprise. It happened so fast the cameras hadn’t gotten into position. It happened so fast it almost felt dismissive, like part of Koepka was disappointed the competition was over with two and a half holes still to play.

Koepka likes it when golf reminds him of other sports, so let’s go there: This was a hockey player slowly skating in an empty-netter to put his team up two. This was a basketball player scooping a bad pass and laying one in as time expired. This was a cornerback catching a game-ending interception and savoring a few extra steps before taking a knee. The rough had tortured golfers all week but felt like an afterthought here; Koepka’s ball landed on the front of the green, chased towards the back pin and settled just four feet from the hole. Game over.

Ten seconds isn’t much time at all.

But Koepka had already waited far too long.

HIS FIRST MAJOR didn’t come early. Not at age 21 like Jordan Spieth nor at 22 like Rory McIlroy. But once Koepka won one — the 2017 U.S. Open, as an under-the-radar 27-year-old basher — the next few came awfully quick. He outdueled Dustin Johnson in the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock. He outdueled Tiger Woods in the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive. He held off Johnson in the 2019 PGA at Bethpage. Four majors in three years? That puts you in rare company. But there’s a tricky thing about major championships and expectations. When you win one, people wonder if you’ll win two. When you win four, people wonder if you’ll win 10. You wonder, too.

But when you’ve won four it’s not just tough to win 10. It’s tough to win five. Koepka had earned his reputation as a cold-blooded closer, but in the years that followed he logged a series of near-misses. At the 2019 U.S. Open he finished runner-up. At the 2020 PGA he talked a big game but couldn’t back it up. Phil Mickelson stared him down in the final group of the 2021 PGA, ushering in a year of not-quites: he finished inside the top six at the next two majors, too. He was still a big-game hunter, playing elite golf in elite competitions. He just wasn’t inevitable.

Then came 2022, and with it came injury and poor play. As it turned out, things could get much worse than a tie for sixth place. In four major starts, Koepka logged two missed cuts and two 55ths. Doubt consumed him. Athletes never know when the end is coming; was it possible it had already arrived?

Netflix’s cameras followed Koepka at a particularly low moment in the aftermath of a Masters missed cut. Suddenly the whole world saw Koepka with his armor off; we saw how hard it hurt to struggle and how desperately he yearned for a return to the top. He admitted he “couldn’t compete.” He said he’d give up all the money he’d won just to feel that major-champion rush for 10 more minutes.

By the time he spoke to the media on Sunday he’d been back atop the mountain for at least a half-hour. But he acknowledged that what Full Swing showed was very real. More than that: he was glad they did.

“I know I seem like this big, bad, tough guy on the golf course that doesn’t smile, doesn’t do anything, but if you catch me off the golf course, I’ll let you know what’s going on,” he said. “Like, I’m happy they got that side; right? That’s truly me, and some people might hate it, some people might dog it, but at the end of the day, it’s just me.”

Elliott said his most important role had been as an emotional constant.

“Just being there for him,” he said. The pair have worked together for a decade now. Elliott is from Northern Ireland. In the U.S., Brooks is like his little brother and the Koepkas are his closest thing to family. He never doubted Koepka’s ability, saying he was “born to play golf.” But one injury seemed to lead to another. “He was low. I don’t know that he ever thought he was going to be able to do it again.”

Just how low was it? Koepka said he stopped short of making retirement plans, but…

“If I couldn’t play the way I wanted to play, then I was definitely going to give it up,” he said. “I mean, the thought definitely kind of crossed my mind.”

THINGS GOT BETTER — but also worse — at the Masters this April, when Koepka began Sunday four shots ahead of Jon Rahm but finished the day four shots behind him. His health and his form were both massively encouraging. But his final-round wilt was just the latest data point in a yearslong trend.

To his credit, Koepka didn’t shy away from what had happened. He stared it in the eye trying to figure out why.

“Look, I learned from it,” he said. “I’m very pleased with what I took from it, and I’m pleased with the honesty I was able to dive into.”

Koepka and his best friend stayed up most of the night talking through the day. His buddy didn’t hold back. Whatever lessons they settled on — Koepka wouldn’t spill details — proved valuable come Sunday.

“He was texting me all last night about it and making sure that I wouldn’t fall in the same trap,” Koepka said.

He didn’t.

KOEPKA’S APPROACH into No. 2 — a 162-yard short-iron to four feet — set the tone for the day. A 212-yard missile to four feet at the next hole kept it going. A wedge shot to nine feet at the par-5 fourth set up his third birdie in a row. Oak Hill was more receptive than it’d been all week, but still: the leader wasn’t supposed to make things look this easy.

And it wouldn’t stay that way. Hovland matched his birdie at No. 4 and clawed one shot back with a birdie at No. 5. Then Koepka showed his first sign of weakness on the sixth tee, push-slicing driver into the swamp down the right side. Another bogey at No. 7 kept Hovland within one and brought several more chasers into play; Scottie Scheffler, Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy were within shouting distance.

Koepka birdied 10 but bogeyed 11. He birdied 12 but then watched Hovland birdie 13 — and holed a curling 10-footer for par just to maintain his one-shot lead. He hit a mighty tee shot at the drivable par-4 14th, tapping into his relentless combo of power and precision and setting up an easy two-putt birdie. The result was still in question as he and Hovland traded pars at 15 and teed off at 16. But then Hovland’s bunker misadventures set up the kill shot. Koepka was thrilled with his approach and even more pleased with the putt, a slippery curler that fell in the middle, pushing his lead to four.

“I’m just happy that one went in. I think it was a little momentum boost,” he said, typically understated. “Gave me a little ease going into 17, 18.”

All that was left was planning the celebration, and that was already in the works. Sunday night he was eager to get home. But Monday?

“I would say tomorrow with the [Florida] Panthers game, it will probably be a large tailgate,” he said. “A long afternoon.”

KOEPKA WAS RELUCTANT to put this one into full perspective so soon after the final putt had dropped. He’d need a couple days, he said. Later he changed that to a week.

Just that number — five — gives perspective enough. Only 20 men have ever won five majors, after all. The win breaks a tie with Rory McIlroy and makes Koepka the only player younger than Tiger Woods to reach no. 5. Koepka is in a class of his own again. Even if we’re not thinking about how he’ll get to 10, we’re already curious how he’ll get to six.

Despite his reluctance, it was clear he was already processing what it meant in real time. He was grateful to be there and grateful for those who’d helped him get back. For his doctors. For his family. For his caddie.

“I felt bad for him that he was stuck with me there for awhile,” Koepka said of Elliott. “He was tired of me; I was tired of him. I don’t know if he gets enough credit for being as good of a caddie as he is. Caddying is a lot about reading the people, reading your player, knowing what they are going to do before they even do it and kind of sense the moment of what to say, what not to say.”

It was clear, too, that this one meant so much because of how hard it’d been since the last one. The Netflix cameras captured a snippet of the suffering. But he was the only one who’d lived it.

“Pardon my language, but it’s all the f—- s— I had to go through,” he said. “No one knows. No one knows, I think, all the pain. There’s a lot of times where I just couldn’t even bend my knee.”

Much will be made of Koepka’s win as the first major title for an active LIV golfer. That’s significant for the professional golf landscape, but that felt like a footnote in the context of what it meant for Koepka.

“Yeah, I definitely think it helps LIV, but I’m more interested in my own self right now, to be honest with you,” he said. This isn’t his only recent win; he was the first LIV pro to win twice on the startup circuit. But Koepka has always echoed his childhood hero, Tiger Woods, in placing the majors above everything else. That was true when he played the PGA Tour, too. But a majors-only attitude can backfire when you don’t perform at the majors. Now that he’s finished second and first in this year’s biggest events, he’s regained the right to say anything he wants.

Still, most of his words reflected the relief and gratitude of the moment, knowing he’d returned to his favorite place in the world after years of wondering if he ever would.

“This is probably the sweetest one of them all because all the hard work that went into,” he said. Later he said it even more succinctly. He’s never been one to waste time, after all. Not even a few seconds.

“I’m back,” he said. ”I’m here.”

Dylan Dethier

Dylan Dethier Editor

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/ The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.

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