Brooks Koepka stood on the tee at Bethpage Black’s no. 18 hole with a crucial decision to make. His lead, which had started Sunday at seven strokes, had dwindled down to just two after he’d bogeyed five of his last seven holes. His putting was a mess, much of his game was unraveling, and there was just one hole left to close out what would be his fourth major championship in two years. So with friend-but-foe-for-the-day Dustin Johnson in the clubhouse just two shots back, would he take a conservative approach and knock a shorter shot into the fairway? Or would he trust the driver that had been true for most of the week to be good to him one last time?
He went with the driver. And it was not good. Koepka ended up off the left side of the fairway, amid the sand traps and fescue that had claimed so many shots before his. All he couldn’t do on this hole was double-bogey, though it felt like that was a distinct possibility. He knocked it into the fairway, lined up an approach shot, and finally, for what seemed like the first time on Sunday’s back nine, he got out of his own head.
The ensuing shot was beautiful, the putt that followed even better, and Koepka pulled out a par to win the 101st PGA Championship at eight under par.
His victory seemed all but inevitable until the back nine of his final round. The seven-shot lead he took into the day was a 54-hole PGA Championship record, and that score seemed invincible as Koepka was the only golfer in the field who’d been able to put up consistent scoring numbers. But as the finish line inched closer and closer, Koepka’s shots grew more errant. At the par-5 13th, his once-accurate driver failed him and he sailed his tee shot left past the crowds that lined the fairway. He briefly lost the stone-faced touch he’d had through the first three rounds, bogeying nos. 11, 12, 13, and 14 before rediscovering his form for crucial, confidence-boosting pars at nos. 15 and 16.
Johnson, Koepka’s closest foe on the day, eventually got within one shot of the leader and had the Long Island crowds on his side (for better or worse), but then he dropped two shots over the last three holes and ceded a clear path to Brooks.
It wasn’t a smooth ride at the end, but Koepka still set a few records throughout his victory: He became the first player to ever hold two major championship titles (the PGA and U.S. Open) in back-to-back seasons; his 63 on Thursday set the Bethpage Black course record; he became the first male golfer in history to win his first four majors in a two-year span; and he joined Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and Ben Hogan as the only players to win four majors over the course of eight starts. Oh, and with his victory, he also took over golf’s no. 1 world ranking. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t “hitting it that good.” I mean, look at these strokes gained tee-to-green stats:
This feels unfair. Koepka has gained nearly 3x (!) as many strokes from tee to green as the 10th best player from tee to green this week. pic.twitter.com/zpTS3cwwNC— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) May 19, 2019
That four-hole stretch from nos. 11 to 14—and later, the bogey at no. 17—seemed like it could negate all his stellar play through the previous 64 holes, much like the 12th hole negated all of his progress at Augusta National last month. But we’d be remiss in forgetting the dominant flashes that Koepka did show this weekend. He didn’t bogey a single hole in his Thursday round, and he went seven-under par despite not birdie-ing either of the Black course’s par-5s. He smoked playing partners Tiger Woods and Francesco Molinari over the tournament’s first two days, as Woods missed the cut and Molinari played at even par (though he finished plus-eight); dominated Jordan Spieth on Saturday; and smothered Harold Varner III, who finished 11-over on the day and just seemed to be trying to stay afloat. (At one point on the back nine, the scoreboard operators just put an extremely rude “...” where Varner’s score to par for the day should have been.)
Brooks even got Brandel Chamblee—the Golf Channel analyst with whom he’s been feuding off and on for the last month—to admit his mistake in underestimating the 29-year-old. “I’ve been flipped off a few times in my life,” Chamblee said after Thursday’s round, “probably not as often as you think. But I felt like he was giving me the finger for four and a half hours out there today.”
During Koepka’s course-record-setting Thursday round, a scene from Men In Black II popped into my head. You may remember it—it’s the one where Will Smith’s Agent Jay travels to Truro, Massachusetts, to convince the neuralyzed Kay (who now goes by Kevin and is working in the town’s post office) that he’s actually a secret agent and needs to return to New York to help his old agency with their alien problem.
For the big reveal, Jay gets three of Kay’s fellow postal workers to take off their human masks and show their true alien forms. That may seem like a strange scene to have stuck in one’s head while watching a golf tournament—and trust me, it was—but as Koepka raced out to an early lead, with only Danny Lee within four strokes of him at the end of Thursday, I couldn’t help but mentally comb through the Bethpage galleries looking for the guys in black suits who were almost certainly coming to monitor their charge’s progress.
As far as I know, no men in dark sunglasses showed up to ferry Brooks off to his mothership on Sunday night, so even after his limp to the finish line, he’ll more than likely be the favorite heading into the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June. And though there were some whispered Woods comparisons on Saturday night—Chamblee said: “This is Tiger in 2000. ... Here comes a guy who has played golf over the last three days with nothing missing. Not one component of the game missing.”—those will probably take a back seat for a while.
Still, Brooks Koepka just won his fourth major championship in eight starts. That’s nearly an unmatched feat, no matter how it looked on Sunday. Two years ago, I wondered when we’d see another player ascend to dominance and take over the sport’s narrative. Brooks has certainly thrown his hat into the ring. Now it’s time to wonder: Where can he go from here?