Tour Confidential: Breaking down Brooks Koepka’s win and grading the USGA and Erin Hills

June 19, 2017

Every Sunday night, GOLF.com conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. Brooks Koepka bashed his way around Erin Hills to win the U.S. Open by four and become the seventh consecutive first-time major champion. His 16-under total tied Rory McIlroy’s mark (Congressional, 2011) for the lowest winning score in relation to par. Koepka doesn’t lack for firepower but does he have the staying power to become a consistent top-3 player?

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): The talent pool is so deep these days, it’s hard to say who will have the staying power to be a top-three player. I think becoming a consistent top-three player, one must have talent, health, focus, but mostly desire. It’s impossible to tell what’s in a player’s soul when it comes to desire. Tiger WANTED, NEEDED and FOCUSED on winning and winning only, and that’s why he stayed at No. 1 for so long. To ask anyone to be a consistent top-three player these days, with the talent pool as deep as it is, is too tall an order to predict. My advice would be to enjoy this dominant performance for what it is.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer Sports Illustrated: His golf was ideal for what Erin Hills required. There are not many ideal matchups like that, with such length and such wide fairways. I think we’ll see a rotating cast of elite players for many years to come.

Sean Zak, associate editor, GOLF (@Sean_Zak): I’m not ready to crown a now-two-time winner a “consistent top-three player,” mainly from considering his competition, but what he’s done in majors speaks to a future in the top 10, for sure. Adding today’s victory, Koepka has finished T21 or better in his last eight majors. That’s elite stuff.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Wholehearted agreement with Dr. Wood here. As with so many sports, so much depends on intangibles. Inner drive. Physical health. Self belief. Happiness off the course. How much all of those Koepka maintains will have more to do with his staying power than anything else.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): The list of one-and-done major winners is lengthy. I’m not saying that’s Koepka’s fate, but his life just changed forever, and for most guys, that requires an adjustment. I certainly think he’ll win more tournaments. Why can’t some of those be majors?

2. Rickie Fowler grabbed an early lead with an opening 65 and entered the final round two shots off the lead. But he was never really a factor Sunday, posting an even-par 72 to finish six off the pace. What’s most preventing Fowler from sealing the deal at a major?

Wood: I’ve harped on this so many times before on these pages, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but it’s HARD to win any golf tournament these days. It is especially hard to win a major. Nothing’s preventing Fowler from sealing the deal. He continues to put himself there as much as anyone, and when the win comes, it comes. And when you ask Rickie what he did different from the times he didn’t seal the deal, I would venture to say he will say, “Nothing. It was just my day, it was just my time. I didn’t try to do anything other than what I normally do, this time it just worked.”

Bamberger: Rickie is almost a veteran now, with close to 200 Tour starts. He’s won four times. He’s played in 30 majors, and has contended often. When he’s played in 50, he will likely have won one. He’ll win majors likely at about the same rate he wins more ordinary Tour events. No different than a baseball batting average. He’s very good in an era with many very good players. Patrick Reed is every bit as good and Jonathan Byrd was, too.

Zak: No need to change the script from what John and Michael have said here. Beating every other damn golfer in the event is no simple feat, and it just hasn’t happened in Rickie’s first 30 tries. So, what does he do? He tries his hardest to put himself in position for it to happen in major No. 31, major No. 32, major No. 33, and so on. Knock on the door as many times until someone opens it.

Sens: At one point during the broadcast, one of the commentators (I think it was Faxon) said that Fowler was trying to step too hard on all of his iron shots, suggesting that he was forcing it. Fowler may say that he’s not doing anything different when he’s in contention in the majors and maybe that’s true. But maybe he’s kidding himself. With all the hoopla around these big events, and with all the expectations that swell around Fowler every time he gets close, who could blame him for feeling — and playing differently — in those moments. That doesn’t mean he won’t eventually win a major. But doing so might require him to acknowledge the possibility that maybe, just maybe, something does indeed change about his game down the stretch.

Ritter: I walked with Fowler for part of his final round, and his just didn’t give himself enough birdie chances. Today, his irons let him down (11 of 18 greens in reg). But after the round he seemed completely at peace with the result and confident with his form. He doesn’t do pity parties. He’ll be back, and I bet he gets his major soon.

3. After the USGA made unwanted headlines in the last two U.S. Opens, USGA executive director Mike Davis stressed the association needed to get this one right. Mission accomplished?

Wood: Hmm. I think the intent and possibilities for this course and setup were in the right place. Unfortunately for the USGA, the weather did not cooperate. Had we had a dry and windy week, I think we would have seen a far different tournament. With the lack of any real wind except for Sunday, and a soft course throughout due to rains that came at night, there’s nothing the USGA could do. If you were swinging well, the fairways were big and soft (read: no rollout into the bad places), and the greens remained very receptive all week. I will say this as a caddie, and as someone who watched the shootout on Saturday with no wind whatsoever: I’ve never seen or experienced a U.S. Open without fear until this week. Fear that a good shot would be repelled by a rock-hard green. Fear that a good drive would roll out just one yard too far on a firm fairway into five-inch thick, heavy, hackout rough. Notice I said “good” shot. Not “great,” not “perfect,” but good. U.S. Opens to me have always demanded great. They’ve always demanded as close to perfect as possible. No matter how well you were playing, swinging, thinking, and controlling your emotions, there always existed that fear in the back of your brain that this shot, that any shot, could spell disaster. That didn’t exist this week. There was no fear. Erin Hills dry, firm, windy and fast might have brought fear. But once the weather didn’t cooperate, there was no backup plan that could be done with the setup.

Bamberger: The USGA is close to having an identity crisis. Does it want to be our friend or our leader? I want the Far Hillers to lead. But the culture of the day is so democratic now that the players dictate so much, and so does TV. As John said in an interview this week, the fear-factor was not present at Erin Hills. Fear — controlling fear — is what the U.S. Open is all about. Or was.

Zak: What the USGA needs “to get right,” is to get people off their back. They need to construct a fair, difficult test for the U.S. Open once a year. That does not need to include any preordained notions about par. It needs to include words like playability, fairness, challenging, etc. With that in mind, I’d say they succeeded this week in keeping the focus off them, and on the competition, you know, like Augusta National and the R&A do every single year.

Sens: Beautiful course but the combination of the weather and the safe setup made it less than a great U.S. Open course this week. As many players said, it was just too much grip it and rip it to feel like a proper national championship.

Ritter: Right. A true U.S. Open includes small moves up the leaderboard, but the real drama comes from watching guys hold on for dear life and avoid the spectacular crashout. This edition lacked that. Like Wood said, if the USGA was dealt different weather, the entire tournament changes. On the bright side: no rules fiascoes of any kind.

4. The topsy-turvy layout suited all kinds of playing styles and drew praise from much of the field. Even Rory McIlroy, who packed his bags Friday, said he was a “big fan.” McIlroy said, “It’s a big, big golf course with long rough, but it lets you play. It lets you be aggressive.” What was your assessment of the rookie venue?

Bamberger: Good for them. Not for us. The USGA wants to preach a message of playability. This course was too easy for the elites. And unplayable for 90-shooters, from any tee. Some of the greens are nutty. The place is beautiful, though. Spectacular. I’d love to play holes on the driving range all through a long dusk.

Wood: See above. Rewind to Thursday morning with 15-20 mph winds all week and no rain at all, it would have been more suitable for a U.S. Open. Once the wind laid down and the greens got soft, there was no other defense. In a world where 25 guys in the field are routinely hitting 300-yard three-woods, length is not a meaningful defense anymore.

Zak: I imagine the USGA does not want to lean on weather conditions to maintain a course’s difficulty, as they sort of did this week. There’s room for improvement at Erin Hills; I think that much is clear, but is there blame to be had for the governing body creating a place where they, too, could succeed as hosts? Let’s look back and remember how the guy who shot 63 shot 75 a day later. I like a course that can do that.

Ritter: My lingering question is, Was it wise to stage the so-called toughest test in golf at a course where weather was absolutely necessary to create that scenario? I liked Erin, and it was sensational on TV, but this week won’t be remembered as one of high drama.

Sens: And when players don’t feel fear, the event is less entertaining. And isn’t that what this is supposed to be in the end?

5. After Justin Thomas fired a nine-under 63 in the third round to tie Johnny Miller’s mark for the lowest round ever recorded in a U.S. Open and break the Open scoring record in relation to par, Miller was quick to say that “Erin Hills isn’t exactly Oakmont.” Miller also pointed out that his 63 came in the final round and sealed his one-stroke victory. Sour grapes from Johnny? Or does he have a point?

Bamberger: Oh, Lord no. John is spot on.

Wood: A bit of both.

Zak: I’m very, very tired of our collective rush to ask Johnny his opinion on one record that is so variable, venue by venue, so I’ll call some sour grapes on him. Do we know who shot the greatest round in Masters history? Or the greatest round at a British Open? Johnny’s round might not even be the best in U.S. Open history. That’s just what par tells us. That being said, if we must talk about it, Erin Hills was at its ripest on Saturday, but don’t rip on JT for taking advantage of it.

Sens: Johnny does have a point but unfortunately for him it also comes off as sour grapes. It’s kind of a no win situation for him to answer honestly. The politic response would have been to say, “Hats off to Thomas on a great achievement. My win came at a very different time in a very different place when the game itself was also very different.” But no one goes to Johnny Miller for those kinds of milquetoast answers. As impressive to me as anything about Miller’s 63 is the equipment he did it with.

Ritter: He does sound a little jaded, but he’s right. Erin was soggy and gettable on Saturday. And the winning score was 16 under. Oakmont it was not.

6. Year three for Fox’s U.S. Open telecast is in the books. Who did you like? (And please refrain from praising our own Michael Bamberger and Alan Shipnuck.) What did you like? And where can the network improve?

Bamberger: Brad Faxon’s voice is pure golf. Curtis is the essence of U.S. Open golf. He stands for something, for getting the ball in the hole, for being flinty, for calling it straight. They are both friends of mine, but they add immeasurably to the broadcast. As for Buck: Thank God there’s somebody left on this earth that doesn’t think a U.S. Open is a matter of LIFE AND DEATH. NBC in the Johnny era was a very high standard. Fox is getting better.

Wood: I didn’t see a ton of the telecast, but I am a huge fan of Zinger and Fax together in the booth. I love their back and forth. But I’ll go to my grave thinking Joe Buck hates the San Francisco Giants (which he probably doesn’t), so even when Buck says, “Welcome to the U.S. Open,” I HEAR, “Madison Bumgarner isn’t really all that great, and Buster Posey? He’s no Yadier Molina.” So it’s a difficult fit for me for personal reasons. I will say this, and it’s not meant as a knock as much as an observation: I think the cameramen following the actual ball as it flies through the air for NBC and for CBS are just better. Fox seems to depend an awful lot on Shot Tracer instead of seeing the ball land and roll out. It seems to get lost quite a bit, and as a viewer that’s pretty annoying.

Sens: Paul Azinger was great, as always. And I enjoy listening to Gil Hanse talk architecture in relation to the game. The shot tracers were also cool, when they worked. Oh, and Shipnuck and Bamberger looked to me like they’ve been working out.

Ritter: My thought on the telecast is that Year 1 was so bad it was distracting, Year 2 was an improvement, and this year I didn’t even think about it anymore. Most everyone with a mic in their hands — and Zinger, Strange, Bacon and O’Donoghue in particular — were excellent. Fox has some bells and whistles that are different from the other networks, and it’s starting to work for them. I enjoyed it.

Zak: Fox can afford to go all-in on statistics, protracer, etc., since this is their crown jewel event of the season, but they have 100 percent paved the way for a better golf broadcast in that aspect. (I hope CBS and NBC follow suit). Each year of Fox covering the Open will be a better year and Buck will sound more and more normal. He once said, in a very on-brand, baseball way, that they were never going to hit a home run with their first Open. They needed to hit a single at Chambers Bay, then a double at Oakmont. This was probably another double. Let’s call it a ground-rule double.