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Brooks Koepka Went Aaron Judge on Erin Hills and Won the U.S. Open

The first-time major winner tore up the course and the history books

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Brooks Koepka knew it was over.

There were three holes left in the 2017 U.S. Open, but he had just sunk a clutch putt for a birdie on the par-4 15th — the toughest hole at Erin Hills on Sunday — to give him a three-shot lead over Hideki Matsuyama and Brian Harman. Matsuyama was already posted up in the clubhouse with his final-round 66 and Harman was imploding, having bogeyed 12 and 13. Koepka’s lips tilted up slightly, but other than an understated fist pump, his reaction could have been mistaken for any nice putt on any other day at any other tour event.

“I knew where I stood,” Koepka said after his round.

As the day went on, and his galleries grew larger, Koepka harnessed his Ryder Cup experience and delivered one of the best scores in U.S. Open history. He dropped another birdie putt in at 16, low-fived the crowd walking from the 17th green to the 18th tee, and after roping one last drive into the 18th fairway, recorded his first major-tournament victory.

Rory McIlroy holds the low-score record at the U.S. Open with a 268 in 2011. At Congressional (a par-71 course), that was good for a minus-16 finish, and Koepka came into the 18th with a chance to tie that or take the record for himself. He wasn’t able to muster one final birdie, though with his par, he tied McIlroy for the lowest total score to par in tournament history.

All that history might have been news to Koepka. On Sunday, playing his best golf in one of the four biggest tournaments on tour, he would’ve rather been at Miller Park than Erin Hills. “If I could do it over again, I’d play baseball,” Koepka told Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz in 2015, “100 percent, no doubt.”

It’s not hard to imagine him in a major league uniform: At 6-foot and 186 pounds, he told Diaz he is often mistaken for a ballplayer when he’s wearing a billed hat. He comes from a family of baseball players, and was an infielder in Little League. And though he “could never hit a home run as a kid,” his length and blistering power as a 27-year-old made him one of the biggest bombers left after Friday’s cut. This week, the wide fairways of Erin Hills dared hitters like Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, and Rory McIlroy to go for it — each to their demise — while Koepka turned into Aaron Judge in a polo.

He was the perfect golfer for the way the golf course played. Koepka’s club-head speed (fourth on tour with a 124.4 mph average) and average driving distance (fifth at 307.6 yards) gave him an edge coming into the longest course ever in a major championship. He finished under par in every round, and flourished on the windless Saturday, shooting a four-under 68. But because of that power, Koepka’s game didn’t need to change when the winds picked up on Sunday. He hit 12 of 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens in regulation, even with gusts threatening to push the ball around some of the elevated greens.

His striking was strong and accurate, as much as should be expected from someone who once said, “The harder I swing, the straighter it goes.” Koepka may not be able to fly balls 495 yards — no golfer can. But he stepped up to each shot on the back nine on Sunday with the confidence of a cleanup hitter calling his shot. His putts were fluid. His approach shots were textbook. And his hands were steady.

The last two tournament winners — Johnson and Koepka — exemplify the kind of stoic, big-drive players that can find success at the U.S. Open. According to the Fox broadcast, DJ called Koepka on Saturday night to give him some encouragement and words of wisdom. And though golf may not be Koepka’s true passion in life, well, if you can’t do what you love, at least be able to hit a 3-wood 379 yards.

Here are some other observations from the week at Erin Hills.

Your #SB2K17 Team Check-in

Jordan Spieth was probably the favorite out of the three squad members to make the Open, and he wound up having the most disappointing tournament. Memories of his 2015 win will live on forever in our hearts and YouTube videos narrated by Jon Hamm, but by Saturday evening, hopes of a weekend run were dashed. Spieth went four over on Saturday, and finished his Sunday round before Rickie Fowler or Justin Thomas had teed off, finishing tied for 35th at one over.

Justin Thomas and Rickie fared much better, even with their collared shirts, shoes, and extra pant material around their calves weighing them down. The pair shared a house for the weekend in Wisconsin, and they were trading incredible shots, fortunate bounces, and outright luck back and forth like they were Lindsay Lohan and Chris Pine. Fowler led after the first round with a minus-7 on Thursday. Thomas had a historic third round on Saturday, when he set the a new U.S. Open record for the lowest single-round score in relation to par (a nine-under 63). The two were minus-10 and minus-11 respectively heading into Sunday’s round.

They had chances to win the tournament, but Rickie couldn’t put a back-nine run together, Thomas ended up three over on the day, and they finished minus-10 and minus-8.

Smylie Kaufman, the jersey-wearing, Minion-memeing, Natty Light–sponsored spiritual leader of the group, was the only one missing. But according to his Snapchat, he’s been busy this weekend fully enjoying Wedding SZN.

We joke about these guys buddying up, but in a time of transition for the sport, they are some of the most consistent names on ever-changing leaderboards. Spieth has been exceptional for years, and this year Rickie has one win and eight total top-20 finishes, including both major tournaments. The last seven major winners have been first-timers, and Fowler is on the top of the “next up” list. If he can find a way to translate his great opening rounds into wins, his first could be coming soon.

The Course, of Course

After two opening rounds that saw the world’s top three golfers shoot plus-4, plus-5, and plus-10 respectively, Saturday’s third round became less “moving day” and more “criticize Erin Hills day.” The course is built to challenge with it’s length and fescue, but it also amplifies the conditions. The wind, expected to bellow across treeless fairways and manipulate tall approach shots, was silent on Saturday, allowing players to shoot scores never seen before in a U.S. Open. The criticism began when Thomas barely missed out on the ever-elusive major 62. It grew to encompass the 32 players who shot under par in the round, including two who shot 67 and Patrick Reed recording a 65.

After Thomas’s round, Golf Channel’s Ryan Lavner spoke with Johnny Miller, the man who held the U.S. Open lowest-score-to-par record for 44 years.

“A 63 for a par 72 is a heck of a score,” Miller told Lavner, “even if it was the Milwaukee Open.”

It’s difficult to compare this year’s scores to past tournaments because Erin Hills is playing at a par-72, the first time a U.S. Open course has done so since 1992 at Pebble Beach. Even so, the 54-hole lead wasn’t too far off of those of the past four years:

The rounds created by Saturday’s conditions made the tournament unrecognizable to some of its most fervent followers: Miller said that “it looks like a PGA Tour event course setup,” and Jason Sobel of ESPN wrote Saturday night about “want[ing] the U.S. Open back.” Scores slowed with the return of the wind on Sunday — only four players, including Koepka, scored better than three under par — but the inflation from Saturday’s low round will be remembered by the U.S. Open record books.

It’s a calculated risk to use a relatively new golf course in a major tournament, and questions and complaints will surely continue to pile up at USGA headquarters. But the ship should be righted next year when the tournament goes to Shinnecock Hills, and there, fans will likely get a much more traditional U.S. Open.