ROCHESTER, NY — Brooks Koepka slowly pulled into the parking lot of Oak Hill Country Club at 1:10 p.m. Sunday, arriving exactly one minute after his partner Viktor Hovland’s 2:30 a.m. start. Koepka leaned to his right, one elbow atop the center console, and draped his left wrist over the steering wheel of his courtesy SUV. He pulled into a custom parking spot with signage honoring his 2018 and 2019 PGA Championship wins. He backed up, straightened it, pulled it forward and put it in park .
Then Koepka walked as Koepka walks. Incredibly quiet. Shoulders pressed back. It’s like he never wanted the world to think he was trying to get anywhere.
For a long time, this march from Koepka has framed so many Championship Sundays. He was the one everyone was waiting for. He was the last to arrive. It was he who was greeted by a cameraman backing up and capturing every footstep as the broadcast cut to a live shot of The Man entering the scene.
In recent years, however? We kind of got used to not seeing it.
Sunday’s round with Hovland started in front of a huge gallery, just like the good old days. Koepka hit his first tee shot and voila, more of that walk. After an opening par, Koepka birdied the second hole, knocked the ball out of the cup, and took about a full 30 seconds to leave the green. His tee shot on No. 3 was followed by a walk straight out of a John Woo movie.
As he has done for most of his professional career, Koepka did exactly what he wanted on Sunday. A frosty front nine produced a 1-under 34. A heated back nine saw him and Hovland trading shots, the competition boiling, sped things up. Koepka’s gait moved him across the country, in control, those shoulders pushed back even further. A 2-under 33 makes for a 3-under 67 and, like that, a new sign for the parking lot.
Koepka was the 2023 PGA Champion.
Everything that happened at Oak Hill this weekend went according to Koepka’s schedule. It’s been a while since he’s been able to say that, and in some ways it felt fitting for a player whose return from near oblivion has rarely gone to plan. At the darkest times, it looked like his playing days might come to an end known to an unfortunate company of badly injured. Such a fate would have been cruel. He is undoubtedly one of the best players in modern golf history. This victory in Rochester makes him the third golfer to win five majors in the 21st century. The others are Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, two others who know what it’s like to go to the brink and back.
After winning four majors in 2018 and 2019, Koepka tore his patellar tendon in August 2019 and suffered a hip injury in 2020. Then, in March 2021, a horrific injury. A slip and fall at home left Koepka on the ground with a dislocated knee. He tried to push the knee back into place, but instead broke his kneecap and tore his medial patellofemoral ligament, leaving his knee and foot pointing in different directions. A series of surgeries followed, even as Koepka tried to play through.
It all added up to Koepka’s shaky career. Is that why he joined LIV Golf and loaded his bank account with all that initial money? Yeah, probably. We basically got first-hand evidence in “Full Swing,” the Netflix docuseries chronicling the 2022 season of professional golf.
There are some things you can’t ignore, and this was one of them. Koepka has long been a star with a well-worked and very precise image. The whole look. All Nike from head to toe. Custom kicks. Sunbathe. Dimples. Thatch. Biceps. Wife of the actress. Glad to present themselves as cooler than the PGA Tour shmucks. Glad to suggest he’s a real professional athlete, who just happens to play golf.
The documentary was moving. Episode 2 focused largely on Koepka. Or at least this wounded and broken down version of him. The times were dark and the hair was bleached. He was broken, physically and emotionally.
“Like I tasted it, right?” Koepka then spoke of past successes. “And now that’s all I want.” That’s all I want.
It was unclear whether Koepka was only questioning his body or himself as well.
Sunday evening, standing next to the Wanamaker Trophy, he was asked about it.
“It’s difficult – it’s very difficult to explain,” he replied. “It’s just, like, you can’t imagine how hard it is to start. I mean, it was a lot worse than I let on, everybody. Maybe five , six people really know the magnitude of it, and it’s just – it was difficult.
It was Koepka’s world for about two years. The swelling in his knee only went down a few months ago.
So, yes, whether you particularly care about him or not, the week that has just passed is all the more impressive. Koepka started with a 2-of-72 opener on Thursday, saying it was “the worst I’ve hit in a very long time.” Then he responded with a second round 66 to get back into the mix. On a rainy Saturday, a day when only nine players on the court beat par, he scored a second straight 66 to lead a one-shot lead through to the final round.
Back then, Koepka would have been an undisputed favorite heading into Sunday. But these are different days. Last month at Augusta National, Koepka announced his return to form leading the Masters after the second and third rounds. It ended, however, with a fourth round 75 and a congratulatory handshake offered to Jon Rahm.
“He just hadn’t been in that position for a while and it showed,” Koepka’s caddy Ricky Elliott said.
Entering this Sunday, it was unclear how many Koepka-of-olds were still there.
But that was answered quickly.
After finishing 1 of Oak Hill’s front nine in the first three days of the PGA (compared to 7 under at the back), Koepka birdied at numbers 2, 3 and 4 to take a three-stroke lead. Sunday before home viewers could even settle in. for the afternoon show. From there, the pending outcome seemed already a foregone conclusion.
Well, until the sixth tee, when Koepka went for the driver instead of 3 wood and pumped one into the right swamp. He took bogey, followed it with another, and the door remained open for the others.
Hovland was still alive. Just like Scottie Scheffler and others. Cameron Smith was blitzing the course and going low. These guys, they appeared on the scene as Koepka walked away from it. It was not lost on the Koepka team.
“You only need six months on average here and like everyone is right now, the guys are just going to fly next to you,” Elliott said. “If you don’t win, you’re not really relevant, are you? »
Elliott has worked for Koepka since the 2013 PGA at Oak Hill. At the time, Koepka was paired with Woods on Sunday. At some point that morning, Elliott had to nudge Koepka, tell him to stop staring at Woods and focus on his own game. , carefree.
“I have to slow down,” Koepka said on Sunday, describing his style on these stages. “I have to take my time and really just assess things. I don’t think my hands are shaking or my heart rate is racing. I don’t think about the next shot. I just think about what’s going on.
That’s why Koepka looked unchanged, whether he made a birdie putt on the No. 10, or left a two-club tee shot on the par-3 11, or made a another birdie on No. 12. He took his turn and often walked alone, leaving a path of well-pressed footprints and spit.
With Hovland trying to push into the mix, Koepka matched both a birdie on the No. 14 and a par on the No. 15. On the 16, young Hovland blinked. A drive into a right fairway bunker ended perilously close to a raised grass front. Roles reversed, Koepka likely would have taken his medicine, played it safe and hoped to get up and down to stay in the fight. This is one of the reasons he has won five of those tournaments. But Hovland? He is 25 years old. And he swung a full 9-iron, driving the ball into the bunker wall, then resting his chin on his fist, wondering what he was thinking.
Hovland walked away with a double bogey. Koepka left with a four-stroke lead.
“He won’t give you anything, and I didn’t really feel like I gave him anything either, until I was 16,” Hovland said.
And that was it. Koepka closed the tournament with a 9-under 271, two shots ahead of Hovland and Scheffler. His victory came 1,463 days after his last major victory – the 2019 PGA at Bethpage. At the time, Koepka seemed invincible. Over time, his body proved otherwise.
Nevertheless, Sunday didn’t end with tears or Koepka down for all to see. He mostly played it cool. Some things never change.
This dynamic is, at this point, inevitable as far as Koepka is concerned. He is now the first LIV player to win a major, and it is irrevocably part of his history.
At #9, a fan shouted, “Let’s go Vik! Brooks is going to choke! and got a look from Elliott. At number 13, another shouted “Get in the water!” after a tee shot from Koepka, drawing another look from Elliott. At No. 17, a voice beside the green shouted, “Sellout!” as Koepka completed a bogey.
“I hear everything,” Koepka said. ” I do not care. I mean, it’s sports, right? »
Koepka’s only outside crack came on his walk from the 18th green to the score tent. A first-time father, the 33-year-old has a lot going on in his life. Going to sign his card, that’s where everything fell into place and he swallowed a certain emotion.
“That’s what I accomplished,” Koepka said about an hour later, recalling the walk. “Pardon my language, but that’s all I had to go through. Nobody knows. No one knows all the pain.
With this feeling, as only he can do, Koepka ended his Sunday.
He is the sixth player to win three PGA Championships. The others: Walter Hagen (6), Jack Nicklaus (5), Woods (4), Gene Sarazen (3) and Sam Snead (3). The hardest part of stopping Koepka’s play was always that the story was slowed down with it. He had every right to be bitter about it.
But now Koepka has a place to go. Then he’s scheduled for a LIV event later this week in Washington DC and then the US Open in Los Angeles in mid-June. He will get there at his own pace. At 9:30 p.m. Sunday, this white Escalade was the only one left in the lot.
(Top photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)