Two months ago, Brooks Koepka’s most pressing concern was regaining his figure, not defending his U.S. Open championship. At that time, Koepka was preparing for his return to golf after 15 weeks away with a left wrist injury, a layoff long enough to make him joke that he had forgotten where he put his clubs. The notorious gym rat was worried that he was “getting fat” because of his limited workout capabilities, and he spent the Masters tweeting about Manchester United, his favorite soccer club. The priority was returning to the game. Winning a second straight U.S. Open seemed like a dream.
Cut to Sunday when, after an excruciating weekend full of up-and-down scoring, incessant winds, and seemingly different courses from day to day, Koepka became just the seventh golfer to win back-to-back U.S. Opens and the first to do so since Curtis Strange defended his title in 1989 at Oak Hill.
Koepka won in masterful fashion, showing almost no flaws in his armor throughout Sunday’s round. Being in the second-to-last group was familiar territory—he played there with Tommy Fleetwood during last year’s tournament—but this was a significantly different test from Erin Hills. Power was important, but he needed his full arsenal to dig himself out of the tricky situations that Shinnecock Hills presented. His bogey save on no. 11 was critical, the par save at no. 12 kept him in sole possession of the lead, and his lofty approach shot on no. 16 led to the birdie that would ultimately keep him ahead of Fleetwood, who was waiting in the clubhouse at 2-over after a nearly historic round of 63.
The U.S. Open was just Koepka’s ninth tournament of the year, and the setting was exceptionally difficult, even for players who’d had a full schedule. Shinnecock proved to be a tough, if not nearly impossible challenge on some days, and other days—like Sunday—maybe a little too easy on its participants. Discussions surrounding the course and the USGA’s handling of it seemed to overshadow the tournament, culminating with a Saturday that was more about rule violations and baked greens than championship-level play.
Despite the rocky road, the tournament ultimately ended in the right place. Sunday afternoon would see the defending U.S. Open champion, the European Tour’s current top golfer, the no. 1 player in the world, and the reigning Masters champion in a four-way battle for the trophy. Had that not been the result, our lasting memories of the 2018 U.S. Open might not have been of a major champion holding off excellent competition to defend his title, but rather the Jekyll-and-Hyde quality of the tournament itself.
The Shinnecock circus started early Thursday morning, with the tournament’s first featured group—Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, and Jordan Spieth—finding near immediate disaster. The trio combined to go plus-25 on the day, with McIlroy recording a 10-over 80, tying his worst career round at a major. Mickelson and McIlroy bypassed the media after their round, and Spieth stopped just long enough to say, “It wasn’t fun. It was just blah.”
At the par-3 11th that day, noted golf-analytics enthusiast Bryson DeChambeau had his own troubles. His ball—and those of both his playing partners—missed right of the green, having been taken by the powerful Shinnecock wind gusts. After his shot, DeChambeau was overheard exclaiming, “This is clown golf! What am I supposed to do, aim at the grandstand?!”
Golfweek writer and Ringer podcaster Geoff Shackelford noted that the world top-10 was a combined plus-52 after Thursday’s round, just 14 strokes better than the top-10 amateurs playing that day. And according to the European Tour, the field’s total combined score was 1,089 over par, the second-most-difficult round of any major tournament in the past 20 years.
Somehow, Saturday was even worse. Friday’s cut line sat at plus-8, and by the end of Round 3, the first place outside of that would have been good for 23rd. (And Sunday’s scores only made it worse—by the end of the tournament, 9-over par would have put you in 15th place.) The pins at 13, 15, and 18 were noted to be especially challenging, and they tested players throughout the round. Koepka hit a beautiful approach shot on Saturday to eight feet from the hole at 15, only to see his ball spin off the green and into a nearby bunker. (When asked about the hole in his post-round press conference, Koepka responded, “I don’t have anything nice to say about that green and the pin location, so I’m just not going to say it.”) Dustin Johnson hit his approach shot up past the hole at 18, and the announcers immediately noted that, from that spot, he’d have a tough time getting his putt to stop within 10 feet of the hole.
And in a controversial, illegal move on no. 13, Mickelson hit a second putt before his ball had stopped moving in an effort to keep it from rolling down off the green. He was assessed a two-stroke penalty for the move (though some argued for his disqualification), and his explanation was that he’d “gladly take the two shots over continuing that display.”
Phil Mickelson is off the rails. Putting like a four year old out there. pic.twitter.com/doUMMHORNJ— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) June 16, 2018
The most (only?) fun parts of Saturday’s round were watching Phil play no. 13 like a particularly nasty hole at the local mini-golf course and imagining how busy Fox’s censors must have been bleeping out all the expletives players were throwing around in the afternoon. It was a particularly brutal day at an overall brutal tournament, and before the end of the round, ESPN Stats & Info noted that the field had made 361 double-bogeys or worse to that point in the tournament, 65 more than the next-closest event this year and 26 more than were made at Shinnecock’s infamous 2004 U.S. Open. And that was just through Saturday.
Soon the players began weighing in. Zach Johnson was asked after his round whether he thought the course was playing on the edge of being unacceptable, and he didn’t hold back. “I thought we could be on the edge, but we’ve surpassed it,” Johnson said. “They’ve lost the golf course. When you’ve [got] a championship which comes down to sheer luck, that’s not right.”
Koepka called the greens “borderline,” and said he hoped the USGA would address that overnight. Rafael Cabrera Bello tweeted “@USGA found a way to make us look like fools on the course. A pity they manage to destroy a beautiful golf course.” And DeChambeau wasn’t the only player making clown-related comments this weekend. After a Saturday round which found him tied for 10th at plus-7, Ian Poulter tweeted, asking “did Bozo set the course up or are the @USGA going to accept responsibility”?
Thanks guys did Bozo set the course up or are the @USGA going to accept responsibility or just say “IF WE HAD A MULLIGAN” I would have liked about 6 mulligans today. But they are not allowed at this level. “Apparently” pic.twitter.com/O08vOpNlTx— Ian Poulter (@IanJamesPoulter) June 17, 2018
It’s not unusual to see over-par scoring at the U.S. Open. For many, that’s part of the appeal, though the high-scoring at Erin Hills and Fleetwood’s near-record-setting run through Sunday was some of the most fun I’ve ever had viewing the tournament. Since the end of World War II, 23 U.S. Open tournaments have ended with the winner over par. More recently, Webb Simpson and Justin Rose took back-to-back events in 2012 and 2013 with scores of 1-over. Geoff Ogilvy and Ángel Cabrera both won at plus-5 in 2006 and 2007, and in one of his most famous major tournament wins, Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach at 12-under, 15 strokes ahead of his next closest competitors.
The USGA—golf’s governing body in charge of hosting the U.S. Open—also has a history of dropping the hammer in the years following a tournament that was perceived to be “too easy.” During last year’s tournament, Jason Sobel noted in a column for ESPN that the “Massacre at Winged Foot,” the infamous 1974 U.S. Open that saw a 7-over par winner, came one year after Johnny Miller won at Oakmont with a final-round 63. At Winged Foot, then-USGA president Sandy Tatum said, “We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the world. We’re trying to identify them.”
Last year’s tournament at Erin Hills was an exception to the USGA’s typical weekend of punishment, with Koepka’s 16-under winning finish and 31 players ending the weekend under par. Shinnecock was the USGA’s revenge. Fairways that had been widened post-2004 were brought in; the area around the greens was mowed down; and, combined with the wind elements, the naturally tricky poa greens, and some exceptionally difficult pin placements, the USGA wrote a test that seemed unpassable.
There are those that love the U.S. Open for exactly this reason—love to see the world’s best stumble and bumble around a course. But in this iteration, the course wasn’t an even test—it played more like a fun house. Scores changed wildly throughout the weekend, and even within the same day—Saturday morning saw the only under-par rounds of the day, including those by Koepka’s old Florida State teammate Daniel Berger and Tony Finau, who, through the miracle of Saturday afternoon’s conditions, found themselves in the final pairing on Sunday.
During Saturday’s broadcast, USGA CEO Mike Davis admitted the organization’s mistake, saying, “Frankly, we missed it with the wind. The speed of the greens was too much for the wind we had. It was a very tough test, but probably too tough this afternoon. … There were some aspects of this set up that went too far—shots were not only not rewarded, but were penalized.”
The early days of the tournament didn’t punish players for their mistakes on a level playing field, but on a case-by-case basis (the players who teed off in the morning on Saturday played at almost an entirely different course than those that teed off in the afternoon). And on Sunday, there was little punishment at all. Overnight pins were placed in much more accessible locations, and the greens received copious amounts of watering—a grounds crew member told Golf Digest’s Joel Beall ahead of Sunday’s round that if the watering wasn’t enough to hold the greens, “We’re fucked.” Fifteen players recorded under-par scores on Sunday, including Tommy Fleetwood, who matched Miller’s U.S. Open final-round record with a 63, and players were actually able to make runs—see Reed’s blistering front nine—instead of playing it safe and praying not to make a triple. During the two most important days of the sport’s second-biggest stage, the middle ground was hard to find.
Back in April, Koepka was asked about the flack Erin Hills got for being too easy a test for the U.S. Open. “It’s still a golf course,” He responded. “If the winning score was 15 over, people are going to complain that it wasn’t fun to watch, because how much fun is it to watch people make bogeys? If you’re playing good, you can make any golf course look easy.”
Shinnecock Hills never looked easy, even as the scores lowered on Sunday. But this weekend, Koepka’s seeming indifference to the drama of his surroundings had as much to do with his victory as his booming drives. He’s proved that as long as he and his game are in shape, there’s no type of tournament he can’t win.