Dubai: For more than three-and-a-half days, Brooks Koepka lorded over the Bethpage Black course with rare impunity. The famed public course, known as one of the most penal tracks in professional golf, finally bit back over the back nine on Sunday, transforming what seemed like a one-horse race at the PGA Championship into a thrilling climax.
Koepka managed to successfully defend his title, thus becoming the first golfer ever to hold two back-to-back Major titles, but not before surviving a mighty scare over the closing stretch.
The 29-year-old American, also winner of successive U.S. Open titles over the last two years, was seemingly cruising to a massive win when he made a birdie on the 10th hole to get to one-under par for the day and 13-under for the tournament. The only player making a charge at him was his best friend and reigning World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he had made a bogey on the 11th hole moments earlier and the lead was still a very healthy six shots.
And then came the capitulation. It lasted for four holes and even though it did not make a difference to the overall result as Johnson also made mistakes late into his round, it did make for compulsive viewing as things started to get tight at the top.
He dropped a shot on the 11th hole from the fairway bunker, limiting the damage to just one with a clutch seven-feet bogey putt, and then made bogeys with errant tee shots on the next three holes. At that stage, Koepka had slipped to nine-under par and Johnson was just one behind at eight-under.
The New York crowd started chanting ‘DJ, DJ’, which just seemed to steal Koepka’s resolve. The tee shot on the 15th—the hardest hole on the golf course—was going to be critical, and he just bombed one 350 yards down the centre of the fairway. There was another bogey to be made on the 17th hole, but a one-over finish on the final four holes, coupled with Johnson making bogeys on the 16th and 17th, sealed a two-shot win for Koepka (74).
It is his fourth win in last eight Major starts and makes him only the 11th player in the history of the game to win four Majors under the age of 30. More importantly, it has taken him back to the World No. 1 ranking.
Johnson (69) had to be satisfied with a second-place finish at six-under par, with a resurgent Jordan Spieth (71) tied third at two-under par alongside the 2018 Hero Indian Open champion Matt Wallace (72) and Patrick Cantlay (71).
Korea’s Sung Kang (72) was the best-placed Asian at solo seventh place on even par, while Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond (77) faltered over the closing holes and made a double on the 12th hole followed by five bogeys on the next five holes. He finished tied 14th at 282, which secures him a return invite to the PGA Championship next year.
After throwing a massive right upper cut when he drained his six-feet par putt on the 18th, Koepka said the vociferous crowd acted as the tonic he needed.
“I’m just glad I don’t have to play any more holes. That was a stressful round of golf. I’m glad to have this thing back in my hands,” said the man who has just two wins in regular PGA Tour events as against his four Major titles.
“Today was definitely the most satisfying out of all of them for how stressful that round was–how stressful DJ made that. I know for a fact that was the most excited I’ve ever been in my life there on 18.
“It’s New York. What do you expect when you’re half-choking it away? When they started chanting, ‘DJ’ on 14, it actually kind of helped, to be honest with you. It helped me kind of refocus and hit a good one down 15. I think that was probably the best thing that could have happened.”
The wind, which rose to nearly 35mph at times, was the biggest challenge for the field and it definitely ended Johnson’s quest when he misjudged it on the 16th hole after hitting a perfect drive. His approach shot went over the green and he missed his up-and-down for par, giving Koepka the breathing space he needed before a second straight bogey on the 17th.
“I knew today, starting off, that it was going to play tough. The wind was up. It was the most wind we’ve had all week,” said Johnson, who now has a career Grand Slam of finishing second in all four Majors.
“I knew if I could get off to a good start, which I did, that I could maybe put a little bit of pressure on him, and I did that, too.
“Just the last three holes is what got me. Standing on 16 fairway, I’m at eight-under, and hit two really good shots there on 16, and I still don’t know how my ball went over the green there. Obviously not a spot where you can go. I knew I needed to birdie one of the last two when I made the bogey there.
“But I’m very pleased with the way I played. I feel like my game’s been pretty good all year. I felt like I really, really played well tee-to-green. I just didn’t make enough putts to have been tied with Brooks going into Sunday.”
Spieth was looking to complete a career Grand Slam with a win in the PGA Championship, instead he will have to take heart from the fact that he finally secured a top-10–his first after last year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.
“This is the best I’ve felt in quite a while. I’m very happy,” said Spieth, who had fallen to No. 39 in the World Ranking and was 150th in the FedEx Cup standing going into the tournament.
“It’s the same reason the last five or six years, my best finishes are in the Majors. We pick a plan to peak for the Majors. It’s very difficult to try and to do that every week because you use a lot of energy up. The next couple of days, I don’t feel like I can do anything. I’ve got to just rest and recover.
“My score in Majors typically reflects the state of my game at that time and I’ve been speaking of how it’s been closer and better than maybe results would show, and I feel the same about how I finish this week.”
“I knew coming into the week that it was unlikely on this golf course that I was going to have a chance to win, and that’s a humbling feeling for me. But I knew that if I played the course the right way, had the right mentality, kept putting the way I’ve been putting, that I would be in it, I’d have a chance to make some noise.”
Rory McIlroy, who was way outside the cutline after the first 27 holes, shot a second consecutive 69 over the weekend and improved to tied eighth place at one-over par–his ninth top-10 finish in 10 starts this season.
LEADERBOARD (Par-70 course)
272 – Brooks Koepka (USA) 63-65-70-74
274 – Dustin Johnson (USA) 69-67-69-69
278 – Jordan Spieth (USA) 69-66-72-71, Patrick Cantlay (USA) 69-70-68-71, Matt Wallace (England) 69-67-70-72
279 – Luke List (USA) 68-68-69-74
280 – Sung Kang (KOR) 68-70-70-72
281 – Gary Woodland (USA) 70-70-73-68, Shane Lowry (IRL) 75-69-68-69, Rory McIlroy (NIR) 72-71-69-69, Matt Kuchar (USA) 70-70-72-69, Erik Van Rooyen (RSA) 70-68-70-73, Adam Scott (AUS) 71-64-72-74
282 – Chez Reavie (USA) 68-71-71-72, Jazz Janewattananond (THA) 70-68-67-77
283 – Mike Lorenzo-Vera (FRA) 68-71-75-69, Brandt Snedeker (USA) 74-67-73-69, Abraham Ancer (MEX) 73-70-69-71, Lucas Glover (USA) 72-69-69-73, Lucas Bjerregaard (DEN) 71-69-70-73, Xander Schauffele (USA) 70-69-68-76, Hideki Matsuyama (JPN) 70-68-68-77
284 – Jason Day (AUS) 69-74-69-72, Emiliano Grillo (ARG) 76-67-70-71, Billy Horschel (USA) 70-72-71-71, Jason Kokrak (USA) 73-70-71-70, Thomas Pieters (BEL) 74-70-71-69, Jimmy Walker (USA) 70-70-71-73
285 – Keegan Bradley (USA) 70-70-73-72, Sam Burns (USA) 70-72-69-74, Paul Casey (ENG) 70-71-75-69, Adam Hadwin (CAN) 72-70-70-73, Graeme McDowell (NIR) 70-72-73-70, Justin Rose (ENG) 70-67-73-75, Webb Simpson (USA) 72-69-72-72.