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Brooks Koepka Makes Uncomfortable History at the PGA Championship

Koepka secured his first major win in four years, but Oak Hill will be remembered as an even bigger victory for LIV Golf. A feel-good week (Michael Block!) ended with some sobering ripple effects for LIV’s ongoing battle for credibility.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

At 4:35 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Sunday, the final pairing of Brooks Koepka and Viktor Hovland made the turn at the East Course of Oak Hill Country Club, and once more, the golf establishment shifted uneasily in its seat. For the second time in two months, Koepka, who led Hovland by a shot and Scottie Scheffler by three at the time, threatened to walk off with one of the PGA Tour’s biggest prizes. The notion of Koepka waltzing back to the upstart LIV Golf with the Wanamaker Trophy would be slightly more palatable than seeing him bring the fabled Masters green jacket back to the land of short pants and no cuts, but the credibility that a PGA Championship would lend to the insurgent, Saudi-backed alternative would still represent a seismic shift.

Who would catch Koepka and prevent him from sneaking off with the family jewels? After all, he coughed up a 54-hole lead the last two times he led in majors. It wouldn’t be Jon Rahm, who tracked him down at Augusta National. The world no. 1 had struggled uncharacteristically all week and finished a disappointing tournament at 7-over par. It didn’t look to be Rory McIlroy either, who had steadfastly battled his streaky game but still found himself just five back playing the final nine. The PGA Championship, typically the least formal but most fun of golf’s four majors, was suddenly the staging ground for a golf tournament imbued with geopolitical consequence.

Up and down the Koepka-coaster went. A birdie at 10 increased his lead over Hovland to two. A bogey at the par-3 11th coupled with a Hovland par reduced the margin to one. After three rain-soaked Western New York days, the finishing stretch would unfold under bright skies and revved-up Rochester galleries. Another birdie putt from the fringe at 12 increased the Koepka lead back to two, with six to play. A nervy two-putt from off the green on 13 helped Brooks save par, but Hovland reduced the margin to one. Sometimes, it feels like nothing exciting can happen for hours in a golf tournament. On Sunday at Oak Hill, you got up to grab a beverage at your own peril. In front of the leaders, the cavalry repeatedly tried and failed to assemble. McIlroy and Justin Rose gained and dropped strokes and never really threatened. Scheffler, the world’s second-ranked player, played well and shot 65 but simply ran out of holes.

Finally, on the par-4 16th, Koepka’s final challenger blinked. Hovland drove into a fairway bunker, hammered his second into a plugged lie in the rough, and made double bogey. Koepka calmly poured in a birdie putt, and the lead was stretched to four with two to play. For the third time in six years, Brooks Koepka was the PGA champion, and LIV had garnered its first major trophy.

Where does this leave us with respect to golf’s ongoing civil war? Historians may record that this was the week that LIV Golf, for better or for worse, was fully legitimized as a direct competitor to the PGA Tour. Traditionalists have argued that the PGA Tour, with its relatively grueling schedule and general absence of guaranteed money, is where steel sharpens steel. Surely, the thinking goes, you can’t just migrate over from months of goofy golf and take a major championship by the throat.

Two tournaments into this experiment, though, this has emphatically proved to not be the case. After a near miss at Augusta, Koepka triumphed at Oak Hill, but he was not the only LIV defector to thrive. A slimmed-down and resurgent Bryson DeChambeau (a longtime Koepka antagonist) played well all week and finished T4. A month after carding a second-place finish at the Masters, 52-year-old Phil Mickelson made his 100th major cut and his 27th at the PGA Championship, the latter mark equaling Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd. Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson, and Harold Varner III all had mixed weeks, but no matter where you come down on the sportswashing of it all, it’s fairly clear that the cream of LIV Golf is near or equal to that of the PGA.

As for Koepka, he’s a fascinating athlete, with Sunday’s win adding even more intrigue. With his chiseled physique and president-of-the-frat swagger, he can appear to be something of a factory-assembled golf machine. But scratch the surface, and he vibrates on a strange and nervous frequency. Knee and wrist injuries have hampered his play in recent years, and at times, it seemed his confidence was shattered. At the Masters in April, he played most of his desultory final round looking like a hostage. It’s not always totally clear that he enjoys golf. But in bagging his fifth major, he cements his place as one of the all-time greats and is still just 33 years old. It’s a shame that a feel-good win for Koepka, a major many thought would never come again, is overshadowed by the history it makes for LIV.

In one last poetic touch for a tournament truly for the ages, Koepka turned out to not be the week’s biggest star. That would be club professional Michael Block, one of 20 teachers who qualify every year for the PGA Championship in a ceremonial nod to the sport’s workday Joes. Block somehow shot 1-over par for the week, tying for 15th overall and earning an honorary exemption for next year’s championship at Valhalla. And he was hardly boring in the process. Anyone with a heart swelled with emotion when he drained an ace on the fly at the 15th, his eyes reddening with shock at what he’d just accomplished.

As his playing partner, McIlroy, fell out of contention, the two became an unlikely buddy comedy, with über-mensch Rory cheering on the heretofore unknown Block as he barely rolled in a tense 20-footer to make next year’s field. The galleries—which went nuts all week for the affable 46-year-old—roared like it was Tiger himself. “Magic!” marveled Jim Nantz on the broadcast—and it was. If anyone asks me (as they periodically do) what I like so much about sports in general and golf in particular, I’ll have this footage close at hand.

And so, at the end of these mesmerizing four days, the outcome of the 2023 PGA Championship feels as prismatic as its countless story lines. Unquestionably, LIV Golf is a big winner. Blood money has purchased many of the best golfers the game has to offer, and it turns out that any potential trouble with their consciences is not going to prevent them from contending and winning at golf’s biggest events. But in Michael Block, the underdogs have a victory too. The teaching pros are the bricks and mortar of a sport that still possesses a working ecosystem outside of Gulf money and gluttonous guarantees. In one final tear-drenched, post-round interview with Amanda Renner, Block dedicated his performance to “the 29,000 PGA professionals around the world,” referencing, essentially, golf’s hoi polloi. In working-class Rochester, it felt like a tonic. LIV may be here to stay, but this week’s barn burner of a PGA Championship proved there’s still room for the little guy too.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.