PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — No, Brooks Koepka did not win the U.S. Open. Gary Woodland did that. But Koepka claimed something he hadn’t in previous majors: the fans. Sure, he has four majors titles and he has the swagger but he didn’t really have the fans — not all of them — until Sunday. And you are not a superstar until you have the gallery on your side.
On Sunday, Koepka shot 68 but couldn’t catch Woodland, who won by three. But Brooks was never really supposed to catch Woodland. Many thought he would, but the guy was four strokes back to start the day. It was a tough task, even for a world-beater like him, yet in some ways it still felt like it was his tournament to lose. But Koepka didn’t lose this Open. Woodland won it.
“It doesn’t sting,” Koepka said afterward. “I played great. Nothing I could do. I gave it my all. I give it my all every time and sometimes, like this week, it’s not meant to be. I played great. I hit every shot that I wanted to. And sometimes no matter how good your good is, it isn’t there.”
Even with his runner-up finish Koepka remains the most feared man in major golf. He embraces the me-versus-the-world mentality — he thrives if he can place that obligatory chip on his shoulder — but he’s running out of doubters at a furious pace. On Sunday he was in the penultimate group but it seemed like the last. When he made birdies the roars rivaled the ones usually reserved for Tiger. He was, for the first major of his career, the rooting favorite. At Erin Hills he was still an unknown to casual fans, at Shinnecock he was going against Dustin Johnson and at Bellerive he won the tournament but lost the popular vote to Tiger Woods. Even last month at Bethpage the fans were in Johnson’s corner. When Koepka missed the green on the par-3 14th they chanted “D-J! D-J! D-J!” He said afterward the fans’ chant refocused him.
But on Sunday at Pebble Beach, Koepka was the guy. Woodland led and Justin Rose lurked and Rory McIlroy was around, but Koepka — Koepka! — was the man the Pebble faithful seemed to be backing.
He birdied the 1st and had a phenomenal up-and-down for par on No. 2 before sticking a wedge to inside two feet on 3. As he walked to the green the gallery screamed out to him. A young fan asked photographers to get out of his way, and a middle-aged woman did the same with the reporters. Brooks was about to putt, and they needed to see this.
After Koepka rolled in a two-footer on 3, he walked to the 4th hole, which shares a tee box with the par-3 17th. Rickie Fowler was already there, decked in his trademark orange and chomping on a snack as he waited for the green to clear. Few players move the needle like Fowler, even though he’s still major-less. When Koepka crossed the tee box he stole the attention from Rickie, who himself moved in closer to the 4th tee and watched Kopeka blast an iron down the fairway.
“Brooks, this is all yours, baby!” one fan roared as Koepka walked off the 4th. Minutes later Koepka stuck another wedge and made birdie, and he drained a 22-footer on 5 to go four under through five. The crowed erupted again, echoing through the grounds. Koepka made the turn in three under but played the back nine in even par. His 3-iron into the 72nd green was his last chance at an eagle opportunity, but he flew it too far and it rolled into the rough. He wasn’t able to do better than par, but it didn’t matter. Woodland was nails down the stretch with a big save on 17 and birdie bomb on 18. Koepka was one of the first to congratulate him.
“It was awesome to come this close to going three in a row,” Koepka said. “It’s incredible. Anytime you can compete in a major is special and to have a chance to go back-to-back-to-back, that was pretty cool. I didn’t really think about it until I was done on 18 and realized how close I actually was to kind of, I guess, not making history, but kind of tying it, I guess you could say. But it’s a cool feeling to know. Just wasn’t meant to be this week.”
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