If you’re a golf fan, you remember the Sundays—the special summer afternoons when Tiger Woods was in contention in a tournament. It didn’t matter what the tournament was, or whether he came into the day leading or a few shots off. The instinct was automatic: You turned the TV on because you couldn’t risk missing it. In my family, dinner-prep time was focused around the action—we were always sitting down and eating by the time Tiger made the turn. Any time that red shirt was in the hunt, magic could happen.
Sunday of the 119th U.S. Open had the same feeling, but not because of Tiger. Instead, another Nike-clad assassin carried similar expectations as he entered the day four shots back of leader Gary Woodland. Brooks Koepka, who was going for his third straight U.S. Open victory and fifth major win in his past nine starts, sauntered up to Pebble Beach’s first tee box on Sunday afternoon ready to grab this tournament by the throat. And even though he’d eventually fail to defend his title, finishing three shots back of Woodland, Koepka solidified himself as appointment viewing.
Brooks stormed off that first tee, landing his drive within 143 yards of the hole, then hit a beautiful approach and knocked in a lengthy putt—his first of eight one-putts in the first 11 holes—to gain his first stroke on Woodland. He went on to birdie a ludicrous four of his first five holes before things slowed down at no. 6.
Even Koepka’s misses were captivating. On no. 2, the only hole in that opening stretch that he didn’t play under par, he hit his tee shot to an area of the course that would be considered out of bounds in most non–U.S. Open tournaments at Pebble Beach. He dropped his second shot to the lip of a bunker in tall grass, then somehow managed to hit his third to within 6 feet of the hole and save par. At the par-4 eighth, he hit his second shot into some deep rough behind a green-side bunker, muscled his third shot—which dug so deep into the grass that his club head stopped dead upon contact—into the bunker, then managed to get up-and-down and lose only one stroke.
The back nine was more of a challenge, as it has been for players all week. After a birdie on no. 11, Koepka was delayed off the tee by Louis Oosthuizen—playing in the group in front—and his attempts to make up for a disastrous tee shot. Koepka dropped his first into a bunker, but got a clean look and rolled the ball just past the hole. He couldn’t make a tricky par putt, though, and he dropped back to 10-under, where he’d eventually finish the day.
Even though Koepka didn’t make the late-round charge many expected—he parred the final six holes—his score still dictated the tournament’s outcome. That’s not to take anything away from Woodland, who was an unflappable par-saver all week and held on to his Sunday lead despite an Olympic gold medalist and a guy going for his second consecutive title defense breathing down his neck. Woodland bogeyed just one hole on the back nine all week—no. 12 on Sunday—and got himself out of countless jams to win his first major. But even so, Koepka was the main event.
We’ve seen other players get close to the Appointment Viewing distinction in the recent past. Rory McIlroy did during his run in 2014; Jordan Spieth took up the mantle the year after. But none of those guys have sustained that success, nor do they have the attitude that makes Koepka feel like such an inevitable force. Brooks may fizzle out in a year or two as well, but for now this feels different: Koepka is the only player in history to have defended two major championship titles in back-to-back years, and Sunday showed that he isn’t fading just yet.
And that’s precisely why his situation on Sunday was so much fun: He got to put his influence to the test. That’s a new role for Brooks when he’s been in major contention. When he won his first at the 2017 U.S. Open, he came from one stroke back in Sunday’s round, but few had any expectations for him. In the 2018 U.S. Open, his main competition was Shinnecock’s dried-out greens. And in both of his PGA Championship victories, he mostly acted like a human stiff arm, holding off Tiger in 2018 and Dustin Johnson last month. In this tournament, all eyes were on him even as he played from behind. And had a couple of shots and putts—like his birdie attempt on 18—gone his way, he just might have pulled off the miraculous.
Though Tiger’s Masters victory this year was one for the ages, the days of gathering your family around the television or pausing everything you’re doing to see him play out the final holes of a tournament have largely faded. His presence transcended the entire sport for decades, and we’re not likely to see that replicated again. But I got a little piece of that feeling back on Sunday afternoon—the sense that people had stopped to see just what this guy might be capable of. And to feel that magic again—at Pebble Beach, no less—has me optimistic that maybe this time it will stick around.