Long, winding road worth it for US Open champion Brooks Koepka
ERIN, Wis. — The list of places Brooks Koepka had to go to win golf tournaments looks like a page straight out of a travelogue.
Spain. Scotland. Turkey. Japan.
On Sunday, he added Erin Hills in Wisconsin to the list — the stop that made all those frequent flier miles worth it.
The 27-year-old American, who had to leave his home country and join Europe’s minor-league tour to get his career going, won the U.S. Open. He set aside the wind and the pressure to subdue Erin Hills after it finally got some teeth following three rounds of soft greens and prime scoring conditions.
The wind kicked up, but it didn’t faze Koepka. He shot 5-under par and made only one bogey to finish at 16-under 272. That was four shots clear of Hideki Matsuyama and Brian Harman. The only drama at the end was whether he’d make birdie on the par-5 18th to break Rory McIlroy’s scoring record in relation to par.
Koepka settled for a tap-in par, but that didn’t matter. He earned $2.16 million, his nation’s championship and the comfort of knowing the far-flung trips to Kenya and Kazakhstan and India and beyond are all in the rearview mirror.
“To get to travel the world at 22, 21 years old, and do what you do for a living is pretty neat,” Koepka said. “I’ll go anywhere. … I think it helped me grow up a little bit and really figure out that, hey, play golf, get it done, and then you can really take this somewhere. And I built a lot of confidence off of that.”
His confidence in the final round came, in part, from a short conversation the night before with Dustin Johnson, a friend who had been through his share of close calls and heartbreaks before finally becoming a major champion at the U.S. Open last year.
Take the shots one at a time, Johnson told him.
Turns out, they think pretty much the same. Play the same, too.
“He’s going to overpower golf courses, and he’s got a great demeanor,” said Bill Haas, who finished tied for fifth. “He’s just like Dustin, I would say. They’re very much a similar player, where nothing seems to bother them. And it’s no surprise.”
Tied for the lead with six holes left, Koepka made an 8-foot par putt on 13 that gave him confidence in his putting stroke. He followed that up with birdies on the next three holes.
Only Matsuyama displayed that kind of scoring ability Sunday. But he started the day six shots out of the lead. His round of 66 was over nearly 90 minutes before Koepka strolled to the 18th green, with the tournament all but wrapped up.
“I learned a lot this week,” Matsuyama said. “Hopefully, though, in the future, in majors, I can play in the either last or next-to-last group to give myself a better chance.”
Other than him, nobody made a charge.
Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas were the popular favorites. But Thomas followed his record-setting 63 with a 75, and his hopes were essentially dashed after three bogeys over the first five holes. Fowler shot 72 and finished at 10 under, in a tie for fifth. It’s a score that would’ve won all but two of the previous 116 renditions of the U.S. Open.
But not this one.
Erin Hills never quite shaped up as the exacting, U.S. Open-type course it could have been. It was long — the longest in U.S. Open history — and the fescue lining the fairways was brutal. But the fairways were generous and the wind that serves as the course’s best defense didn’t kick up until the end.
“It would be a lot of fun to see this place firm and fast,” Fowler said.
Hard to think it would’ve bothered Koepka, who has seen a lot.
Upon getting out of Florida State, he was without a card on any tour, so went onto the Challenge Tour, which is Europe’s version of the Web.com Tour.
Asked about the low point, he said it came one night in Scotland when he called his agent and said he wanted to come home.
“I was kind of, I don’t want to say homesick, it was just, tired of golf. Tired of traveling. I just wanted to be home,” he said.
He won that tournament, made it to the regular European Tour, and then made it home to the PGA Tour. He came into the U.S. Open with one Ryder Cup appearance under his belt, and three top-five finishes in majors. More than worrying about the uncertainty of his career, he was trying to figure a way to close one of these big ones out.