Tour Confidential: Does Koepka’s latest major win prove he’s human…or superhuman?
Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss all things Brooks Koepka and the PGA Championship.
1. Brooks Koepka has done it again, winning his fourth major title in eight tries — although he didn’t exactly slam the door on his chasers. Koepka bogeyed five of his last eight holes to edge his buddy Dustin Johnson by two. Was this the first real sign we’ve seen of a usually unflappable Koepka leaking oil down the stretch, or simply a brutal Black Course biting back?
Sean Zak, associate editor (@sean_zak): I think it has way more to do with a brutal Black Course in wicked conditions. That wind was no joke Sunday, and this course is tough as it is. The field proved that during calm Thursday and Friday rounds. Koepka leaked a bit, yes, but he still turned it on and parred 15 and 16, two brutally tough holes, under the gun.
Josh Sens, contributor (@JoshSens): What Zak said. The Black Course was brutal today, and Koepka was pretty much his bloodless self.
Jess Marksbury, associate editor (@jess_marksbury): Gotta say, today’s round tempers my enthusiasm just a touch. After those first two rounds, I was looking for Brooks to win by 10 — or at least break Rory McIlroy’s 2012 margin-of-victory record of eight shots. Koepka showed a little chink in the old iceman armor. But he bounced back when he needed to, so ultimately, that’s all that matters.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Human. And it makes Tiger’s career look more Supermanish than ever.
John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Both? While it would have been awe-inspiring to see Brooks win by 8 or 10 or even Tiger numbers, it showed more guts and resilience to win like he did on what was a brutal test Sunday at Bethpage. He was like a golfing Seabiscuit. He was out front, and had no one to test him but history, the course, and himself. But when Dustin nearly caught up and Brooks saw him eye to eye, he regained himself and his game in time to close it out the last four holes. A lot of guys, heck, most of them, wouldn’t just almost give up their big lead during a slide like that. They would go all out and cough up ALL of it and right now we’d be talking about Norman at the Masters vs. Faldo or Van de Velde at Carnoustie. We aren’t. But I also can’t say enough about the job Ricky Elliott did out there. You wouldn’t think it, but caddying with a big lead is hard, especially on a difficult course. What do you do? Let him go? Rein him in? It’s an artful combination. When things got close on the back, Ricky’s demeanor didn’t change one iota. His facial expression, his voice, his pace of walking, it all remained as it had been for the previous 66 holes, which is what Brooks needed. He’s absolutely one of the best in the business.
Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@dylan_dethier): Human. The dude made four bogeys in a row on the back nine and missed a kick-in on No. 17! But that show of humanity should serve to remind us just how unbelievable his play was the rest of the week. Also, playing defense on a seven-shot lead on the Sunday of a major is an incredibly weird place to be. It was great theater watching him try to hang on.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor (@jeff_ritter): His fist-pump celebration might’ve shown more emotion than he flashed in his previous three major titles combined. He was struggling out there, like most guys in the field, and he clearly felt relieved to get to the clubhouse.
2. Koepka has now recorded back-to-back wins in the last two U.S. Opens and PGA Championships, a feat that has never been done before. On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being “You can’t be $%#&! serious” and 10 being “Game on!” how likely is it that Koepka will match Tiger Woods’ major total of 15?
Zak: It’s so unlikely. Soooooo unlikely. Because, you know, only two men have ever done that. I’ll go with a 2 on that scale, very nearly a 1. And yes, I considered a 0, but had to avoid it out of sheer respect for what he’s done.
Sens: Such a long way to go. Too early to say “game on.” But given how Koepka responds when publicly doubted, no way I’m saying “You can’t be bleeping serious.” Plenty will have to go perfectly, though. He’ll need to stay healthy, interested and immune to the slumps and bumps that have affected every great player before him. And that’s a lot to ask. I’ll give it a 3.
Marksbury: It’s easy to hop right on the Koepka bandwagon in the wake of his recent accomplishments. Right now, he kind of feels like he could get in the 8-10 zone pretty easily. But 15! No way. Golf is a fickle game. Look at how Spieth and McIlroy have stalled. I need to see a bit more. My answer is 3.
Bamberger: Close to zero. Tiger had more game, more to prove, more OCD, more everything. Winning was everything to him. He’d do whatever he needed to do to get there.
Wood: Let’s just appreciate what he’s doing now, and not expect that kind of perfection. Nobody will ever win like Tiger again. Winning is HARD. Winning majors is HARDER. Didn’t we think Duval would keep winning once he won one? And Freddy Couples…How about DJ, who still sits at one? And Rory, who everyone had penciled in for 10-12 after his early first four. I’m not knocking these guys in the least. Brooks is making it look easy now, but you never know when or why the spigot gets turned off.
Dethier: This is a bridge too far. Health, interest, competition, statistical regression…there are so many factors pushing against it that I’m near-zero on this, too. But that’s not to take away from an incredible major run that Koepka’s currently on.
Ritter: Agreed. Koepka’s performance this week had shades of vintage Tiger — build a lead and slam the door — but it’s too early put him on track to surpass Tiger’s career records. It’s a 1 out of 10 for me.
3. Dustin Johnson became the eighth golfer to complete the “runner-up grand slam” in majors, but could have applied more pressure to his buddy Brooks. After climbing to within one of the lead, he made back-to-back bogeys on 16 and 17. What’s your takeaway from DJ’s deflating finish?
Zak: He made one bad swing during the ultra-important holes (15-17) and that bad swing didn’t come until the 17th tee. I think he was epically good, and some bad luck or bad decision-making kept him on the wrong side of history. I’m not worried about DJ at all. Brooks had this thing won for a longgg time.
Sens: Conditions were so tough today and DJ was so solid in them. I wouldn’t hold those back-to-back bogeys against him. With that said, DJ has short-circuited a few times majors in his grasp (Pebble; Chambers Bay; Whistling Straits, for instance). A small sample size, to be sure, but I think it’s fair to say that he doesn’t have the same killer instinct as his workout partner.
Marksbury: I can’t imagine that he really believed he might win today, even after drawing so close. At the end of the day, you could say he blew it, but I’d rather look at it as a spirited run he should be commended for. Just too little too late. Would have loved to see all this transpire with Koepka and DJ in the final group together.
Bamberger: My takeaway is that for pure golf talent, Dustin Johnson is the best in the game. John Daly once was, too. So was Fred Couples. And it’s a great, great starting point. But Bernhard Langer is here to tell you, it’s not the ending point.
Wood: I gotta agree with Jess. Starting the day, you’ve got a huge mountain to climb, and although the course is extremely difficult, the pressure is not what it would have been had he started the day tied or one back. Nobody expected him to win, and when that’s the case, you can kind of go out and play with a lot of freedom. Mistakes aren’t a huge fear when you’re 6 or 7 back. So he climbs and scraps and claws and gets a little help from Brooks to make it close, and only in the end does he fall back. Like Jess said, it’s commendable.
Dethier: In the last 15 pairings, just one player shot a round under par: Dustin Johnson. He played the round of the day, given condition and circumstance. It was reminiscent of Fleetwood’s 63 at Shinnecock last year: a virtuoso performance that did everything but stick the landing.
Ritter: Conditions were brutal, but DJ’s worst swings came late when he had a chance to win. I think he might’ve been surprised to actually have a shot at it. This one hardly qualifies as “letting one get away,” but if DJ could’ve somehow played those last three holes in even par that might’ve been enough to steal it.
4. Tiger Woods was the pre-tournament favorite but never contended en route to missing the cut at the PGA. Does this performance change how you feel about Woods’ chances at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach next month?
Zak: It doesn’t change how I feel, but it should change how many other people feel, including some in this TC panel. He is very, very fallible, and the PGA should recalibrate our expectations. We cannot expect him to contend everywhere he goes. This is not to say he’s isn’t still great and one of the best 10 players in the world, but it should remind us of his age, his body, his rest, his swing, his flippant driving ability, and how his time off means…time as as father, not a practicing golfer.
Sens: No change of mind here. Like a few others in this space, I never saw Tiger as the pre-tournament favorite here. That was irrational exuberance in the wake of the Masters. The Black Course, stretched out and shaggy, was nowhere near as suited to his game as Augusta, which allowed far more wiggle room off the tee. Pebble should be a different story. A second shot course and a sweet fit for Tiger, as he has shown several times before. I’d be shocked if he’s not in the mix.
Marksbury: There’s no question that Pebble is a much more favorable venue for Tiger. Despite what we witnessed at the Black course this week, my feelings are unchanged. I fully expect Tiger to play a starring role come Sunday afternoon.
Bamberger: I’d be surprised if Woods does not contend at Pebble, because of his iron play, and his track record there, and how he plays with the red ass.
Wood: It doesn’t. I thought Tiger would play well at Bethpage, but I didn’t see him as the favorite either. It had been 11 years since his last major. I’ll gladly grant him a Masters hangover this week, and install him as one of the favorites at Pebble. For my money he’s the best iron player of all time, and despite Poa Annua not being his favorite surface to putt on, he is, BY FAR, the best “Po” putter ever. I would guess he’d play Memorial to keep the rust off and head into Pebble with a head of steam and better understanding of where his game is.
Dethier: I thought Woods would contend this week. We can blame illness, sure — but whatever had him off was really off. Pebble should be different, based on course fit, on preparation, on motivation. I’m bullish still. Even this week, the man looks awfully good with a mid- or long-iron in hand.
Ritter: Once Tiger skipped the Wells Fargo and endured a shortened week of practice at Bethpage, the writing was on the wall that he was going to be out of form. I think he’ll content at Pebble, but only if he’s able to compete in at least one event before then, like the Memorial.
5. The fans came alive at Bethpage Black on the weekend, and they’ll surely be out in force for the 2024 Ryder Cup. Asked what he thinks they’ll be like in ’24, Rory McIlroy said, “No comment.” Koepka simply said: “Good luck, Europe.” What can we expect from the Bethpage faithful that week, and is there any cause for concern?
Bamberger: Bring in the horses, just like they do at Yankee Stadium.
Zak: We can expect Rory to lose his mind, I’d think. He did it at each of the last two Ryder Cups, both home and away. I think Rors will be the European stalwart he always is — and as an aside, I still think Bethpage is great for him — but damn, these crowds will be on his ass. They will try so hard to get under his and his comrades’ skin. And I think, to be blunt, it will create a shameful scene.
Sens: The majority of fans will be respectful. But it will be loud and it’s bound to get ugly. I don’t see it getting to the point of a safety risk. But plenty of cause for hand-wringing for anyone who still insists on seeing golf as somehow above the meatheadedness that pervades our sporting culture. Check that. Our entire culture. Golf fandom cuts across all types. If you’re still shocked by that, you’ve got your head in the sand.
Marksbury: Loud is fun, ugly is not. Let’s hope there will be some measures in place to control the rowdies. If we can keep it civil — but LOUD! — it will be epic.
Wood: I love the New York crowds. You’ve gotta have thick skin, but if you play along, they’ll love you right back. To be honest, I’m a bit worried about the 2024 Ryder Cup. We had a few instances of personal insults at Hazeltine, and, heck, Minnesotans are so nice. I really think whoever gets the nod as left-handed Captain for the U.S. in 2024 will need to get out in front of this. Partisan is fantastic. Boisterous and patriotic is awesome. Mean is not. And shoot me for being the messenger, but I think the PGA of America has to look at banning alcohol sales that week. But it’s a long way off. I’m sure by then The Ryder Cup will have calmed down by then. (Sarcasm.)
Dethier: I was out there for a bunch of today’s afternoon madness. There was major anti-Koepka cheering, chanting, etc. And when the final group teed off No. 18, there was a near-stampede down the fairway. I thought the crowd was going to full-on flood the fairway, a la the 2018 Tour Championship. But the New York State Park Police held them at bay, barely. The Ryder Cup should be next level, which might not be good but is sure to be interesting.
Ritter: It’s easy to imagine a Ryder Cup crowd crossing the line and creating an ugly scene. Like Wood said, there’s time to get out in front of it, though. Might want to start now!
Four weekends from now we’ll crown a U.S. Open champion at Pebble Beach. Who you got: Brooks Koepka, or the field?
Zak: The field. And in particular, the man who has won there a bunch: Dustin Johnson.
Bamberger: The field. Four of eight is absolutely amazing. Still, the field. Without any question.
Marksbury: Guys, haven’t we learned anything about snubbiNG Brooks?? J/K. I’m taking the field too. Because the idea of a fifth major for Brooks just feels like too much Dreamland at this point.
Sens: The field. Even Tiger at his most dominant wasn’t a favorite against the field. No snub intended, as Koepka could very well win, but the setup is going to bring a much wider range of playing styles into the mix than either of the first two majors this year.
Wood: The field. And saying a prayer that Sunday night we are talking about the winner and how great he played and what a special place Pebble Beach is, and not about something the USGA did.
Dethier: Stop this craziness. The field!
Ritter: Unless you’re tossing a coin or throwing rock-scissors-paper, field is always the right move.