Tiger Woods explains why Brooks Koepka keeps contending in majors
TPC Harding Park is playing tough. On Saturday, Tiger Woods felt that as much as anyone.
“It got windy,” Woods said after his third-round 72. “The greens are starting to get a little crusty. They aren’t really that quick, but they’re definitely crusty coming in on the approaches, and the wind is definitely moving the ball on the greens when you’re hitting putts. Keith [Mitchell, Woods’ playing partner] hit a number of good putts today that the wind grabbed a hold of. It’s going to be tough for the guys out there today unless it calms down towards the evening.”
But as Woods gave his post-round remarks, he was reminded of just the sort of player who rises to the top under these sorts of conditions. As he spoke to the press, he gave a nod to Brooks Koepka’s name, right near the top of the leaderboard.
“I just think that big events, you see the same guys, and we see Brooksy up there again. Guys who understand how to play tough golf courses and tough venues tend to be up there, whether there’s crowds or no crowds,” he said.
It would be fair to consider Woods an expert on this sort of commentary, on the sort of player who rises to the top when the going gets tough. He has plenty of experience dominating under challenging conditions, for starters; the 2000 U.S. Open would serve as evidence, when Miguel Angel Jimenez finished 2nd at 3-over par — and Woods finished 1st at 12 under.
But Woods also has seen firsthand how Koepka performs on the major championship stage. Consider the 2018 PGA Championship, when Koepka held off Woods at Bellerive, playing ice-cold golf down the stretch to stay ahead of Woods’ final-round 64. Consider the 2019 PGA Championship, too, when Woods and Koepka played alongside each other for the first two days at Bethpage Black. Woods shot 72-73 and missed the cut. Koepka shot 63-65 and set a major championship scoring record.
In between, consider the 2019 Masters, where Woods came out on top — but not without a serious push from Koepka, who finished T2 even with a Sunday water ball on No. 12.
So it must have looked familiar to Woods to see Koepka’s name topping yet another PGA Championship leaderboard on Saturday afternoon as he began to reel in 36-hole leader Haotong Li. It’s easy to imagine Woods’ words coming from another source, talking about Woods himself. Instead, he sounded wistful talking about the dwindling number of major championships he has remaining in his competitive career.
“There’s not as many as when I first started playing,” he said. “The reality is that the golf courses are getting bigger. They are getting longer. The margin between making the cut and the lead is a lot smaller than it used to be. Used to be sometimes 12 to 15 shots. Now, we had, what, nine shots? It’s just different.”
(Don’t mistake that for Woods saying the era he came up in was easier. In fact, he’s saying the opposite! That’s an accomplishment in itself considering superstar athletes typically have a really hard time resisting back-in-my-day takes).
“It’s getting tighter and it’s getting harder to win events,” Woods said. “But you look at the leaderboard of most major championships, you see the same guys. May not be always the same winners, but you see the same handful of guys are there. They understand how to win major championships, how to win the big events, how to plod their way along, how difficult it is to win these big events.”
Sure enough, there were those familiar names near the top of the leaderboard. Justin Rose. Dustin Johnson. Xander Schauffele. Jason Day. And Brooks Koepka.
Woods has finally resigned himself to the fact that he’s not winning this week — but he’s still itching to rejoin those names in contention at majors to come.
“We still have another major championship day to play and get ready for the playoffs and we have the U.S. Open after that,” Woods said. “We have some big events to be played, and hopefully tomorrow I can shoot something in the red and get it to under par for the tournament.”
Once he’s done, he can kick his feet up on the way back to Jupiter and watch the contenders battle it out for the Wanamaker Trophy — Koepka chief among them.