Dubai: Even on a day when he did not have his A game out there, Brooks Koepka was smashing records and continuing his imperious march towards successfully defending his PGA Championship title.
The thing is, the American has been such a standout competitor at Bethpage State Park’s demanding Black course that only the bravest would bet against him not becoming the first player to hold back-to-back titles in two Major championships come Sunday evening.
Koepka, also winner of successive U.S. Open titles over the last two years, finally faltered—by his own high standards—and could ‘only’ make three birdies against three bogeys in Saturday’s third round. But a round of even-par 70—on a day when the rising temperature baked the greens and the scoring average had soared to 72.354—was enough to take him to 12-under 198 and help maintain his seven-shot lead over his closest rivals.
An advantage of seven shots going into the final round has proved insurmountable in the history of Major championships, and even on the PGA Tour.
The ignominious record of biggest lead lost in Majors is six shots, held by Australia’s Greg Norman during the 1996 Masters, when he collapsed and surrendered a sure win to Nick Faldo. Scotland’s Paul Lawrie did come from 10 shots behind Jean van de Velde to win the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie, but the Frenchman’s lead on the final day was five shots over the second-placed Justin Leonard and Craig Parry.
Four players were tied second at five-under par, a group that included his close friend and reigning World No. 1 Dustin Johnson (69), and the surprise package of the tournament, Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond (67).
Matt Wallace (70), the 2018 Hero Indian Open champion, was tied for the sixth place at four-under par 136 alongside Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama (68).
Koepka started brilliantly as usual, making full use of the easier opening stretch of holes and reaching 14-under par with birdies on the second and fifth holes.
However, his par putt from two feet on the ninth hole horse-shoed out and an errant drive to the right rough on the 10th cost him back-to-back bogeys. He had another three-putt bogey on the par-4 16th hole, which came after a birdie on the par-5 13th.
The slight wobble may have raised the hopes of some in the field, but the 29-year-old World No. 3 was under no doubt that he’d be lifting the massive Wanamaker Trophy once again on Sunday evening.
“No. I feel confident. I feel good. I feel excited,” said Koepka after the round.
“I was excited just to get to the course today, and then try to build that lead, but that didn’t happen. It’s a tough day and it would have been really hard to shoot 4- or 5-under. Any time the wind’s going to be blowing 15 at Bethpage Black, you’re in for a real test.
“I feel confident going into tomorrow. I don’t know what the forecast is. But if I can hit a few fairways, there’s really a couple key holes out here, you know, you play the seventh well, play 10 and 12 well, and then from there, you just hit the centre of the greens and try to par this place to death.
“I’m definitely not going to let up; I promise you that. I’m just trying to hit the best possible shot I can at the time. I’d love to force it on the field where I can make it as big as a lead as I possibly can get. It would be nice to be able to make a 10 on the last hole and be okay. But I’m just playing to play good golf, and wherever that puts me. I’ll be satisfied if I just go play one more good round.”
Johnson, who could lose his World No. 1 ranking to Koepka, was still hoping to be able to beat the runaway leader.
“I’m going to need some help from him, and then I’m going to have to play very, very well,” he said.
“I felt like I played well today. Just made too many bogeys. It wasn’t one thing or the other. Wind got me a couple times. You know, hit some drives that I thought should have ended up better than they did. It seemed like every time I got just a little bit out of position, I made bogey.
“There’s really nothing you can do on this golf course to change your approach. If I drive it in the fairway, I feel like there’s no hole I can’t attack because you can control the golf ball. The greens are fairly receptive.
“I got a lot of confidence in the irons and I’m driving it well, too. I just need to limit those misses.”
While beating Koepka may prove too ambitious for Janewattananond, a top-four finish gets him into the Masters and a top-12 would earn an invite back to the PGA Championship next year.
The 23-year-old Thai was cheered all the way by the New York fans as he moved to four-under par after 13 bogey-free holes, but dropped shots on the 14th and 17th before getting one back on the final hole.
“People keep shouting ‘love you.’ They love me here,” said Janewattananond, who is placed second in the Asian Tour Order of Merit right now.
“I love it. My first time ever getting a crowd like this, shouting my name. I don’t know how to react to it. This is my first time for the shouting. They give me some really funny names.
“I arrived here on Monday, it was raining. Tuesday was raining. The course was playing so tough because the rough was so long and the ball wasn’t going anywhere. I was having a nightmare. How am I going to play this golf course? I was thinking I’m not going to break 80. This has exceeded my expectation already.”
Jordan Spieth, bidding to become only the sixth player in the history of the game to complete a career grand slam with a win on Sunday, fell back to tied eighth place at three-under par 207 following a round of two-over 72.
LEADING SCORES (After Round Three, par-70 course)
198 – Brooks Koepka (USA) 63-65-70
205 – Jazz Janewattananond (Thailand) 70-68-67, Dustin Johnson (USA) 69-67-69, Luke List (USA) 68-68-69, Harold Varner III (USA) 71-67-67
206 – Hideki Matsuyama (Japan) 70-68-68, Matt Wallace (England) 69-67-70
207 – Patrick Cantlay (USA) 69-70-68, Xander Schauffele (USA) 70-69-68, Adam Scott (Australia) 71-64-72, Jordan Spieth (USA) 69-66-72
208 – Sung Kang (Korea Republic) 68-70-70, Erik Van Rooyen (South Africa) 70-68-70
209 – Rickie Fowler (USA) 69-69-71, Danny Lee (New Zealand) 64-74-71
210 – Lucas Bjerregaard (Denmark) 71-69-70, Tommy Fleetwood (England) 67-71-72, Lucas Glover (USA) 72-69-69, Chez Reavie (USA) 68-71-71, Justin Rose (England) 70-67-73, Danny Willett (England) 71-70-69.