In what may be the least surprising golf news of the year, Brooks Koepka – the 29-year-old big-game wizard, notched the fourth major championship title of his career, and the fourth in his last eight(!) major starts at the PGA Championship on Sunday, successfully defending at brutally difficult Bethpage Black.
It was a week of sevens for the Florida State product: Koepka’s 7-under 63 in the first round set the course record, and he led by seven strokes after both the second round (a tournament record) and the third round. Then on Sunday, he was successfully able to transmute that advantage into another win on a big stage, becoming just the seventh player (since 1934) to win four major titles before the age of 30.
However, while Koepka winning a major has become very, very unsurprising, how Sunday went down in this particular major was anything but.
Seemingly impervious to anxiety and pressure to the point where you figure he would have been an easy meal for a large jungle cat had he lived 3 million years ago, Koepka actually struggled on the back nine of what he later referred to as a “stressful round.”
After a shocking bogey run from Nos. 11-14, the seven-stroke advantage he enjoyed to start the day was suddenly down to just one to close friend Dustin Johnson.
Johnson was unable to pull off the comeback, though, bogeying Nos. 16 and 17 to finish yet another major as a runner-up.
Koepka’s 4-over 74, which featured a back nine where he carded the same amount of bogeys (5) that he had over the first three rounds combined, was still good enough to finish 8-under for the week, two strokes ahead of the runner-up Johnson.
With the win, Koepka became just the second player to successfully defend a title at the PGA Championship (Tiger Woods did it twice) since it moved to a stroke-play format in 1958. A unique wrinkle to his back-to-back wins, though: as the two-time defending champion of the U.S. Open as well, Koepka is the first player in PGA Tour history to hold that distinction in two events at the same time. With the PGA Championship having moved from August to May this year, Koepka has now also won the second major of the season three years in a row.
While Koepka’s Sunday 74 looks conspicuously high (it was the first over-par final round for a major champion since the 2010 U.S. Open), it accurately reflects an extremely difficult final day in blustery conditions on Long Island. Red scores were rare, and the low round of the day was just a 2-under 68, shared by Gary Woodland and Beau Hossler, who finished long before Koepka. Late in the day, the back-nine seemed to claim one victim after another.
Johnson was the only player who seriously pressured Koepka – who moves past Johnson into the No. 1 position in the Official World Golf Rankings with the win.
Finishing in a tie for third at 2-under par was Matt Wallace, Patrick Cantlay, and most notably Jordan Spieth, who would have become the sixth player in PGA Tour history to complete the career grand slam had he been able to win. However, it was a potential slump-busting performance for Spieth, who had not yet posted as much as a top-20 finish in the current season.
Final Leaderboard: Top 10
Pos-Player-Score (To Par)
1. Brooks Koepka -8 (+4)
2. Dustin Johnson -6 (-1)
3. Jordan Spieth -2 (+1)
3. Patrick Cantlay -2 (+1)
3. Matt Wallace -2 (+2)
6. Luke List -1 (+3)
7. Sung Kang E (+2)
8. Gary Woodland +1 (-2)
8. Matt Kuchar +1 (-1)
8. Rory McIlroy +1 (-1)
8. Shane Lowry +1 (-1)
8. Erik van Rooyen +1 (+2)
8. Adam Scott +1 (+3)
14. Jazz Janewattananond +2
16. Lucas Glover, Xander Schauffele, Hideki Matsuyama +3
23. Jason Day, Jimmy Walker +4
29. Paul Casey, Keegan Bradley, Justin Rose +5
36. Rickie Fowler, Harold Varner III +6
48. Henrik Stenson, Francesco Molinari, Tommy Fleetwood +8
60. Louis Oosthuizen +10
64. Tony Finau +11
71. Phil Mickelson, Daniel Berger +12
How Brooks Koepka Won the PGA Championship
Koepka’s unbelievable first three rounds at Bethpage Black gave him an enormous cushion going into the final round, and early on, it looked like he would need it as he bogeyed the first hole, while final-group playing partner Harold Varner III, shortened the lead from seven to five right off the bat.
However, Koepka was able to get his round back to even-par with a birdie on the par-5 4th, and he followed it up with five-straight pars to turn in even-par 35. When Koepka birdied the par-4 10th, his lead again looked insurmountable, and victory, once again, appeared to be a foregone conclusion.
But that is when Koepka finally looked human. He bogeyed No. 11 and then 12. Then 13. Then 14. And in the meantime, Johnson – the winner of the 2016 U.S. Open, had reached 3-under for his round through 15 holes, and suddenly the lead was one. Koepka’s facical expression for the first time all week had changed. He looked stunned, and a bit scared.
Showing difficulty closing an event, though, Johnson bogeyed 16 and 17, which coincided with Koepka calming down and carding pars on his next two holes. Desperately needing a birdie on No. 18, Johnson made par to finish with a 1-under 69 for the day to reach 6-under for the tournament.
However, just as it appeared Koepka would take a three-shot lead into the final hole, he missed a 5-foot putt on the 17th to card a bogey. And just like Tiger Woods did at last month’s Masters, Koepka stood on the final tee box needing a bogey for the championship.
Continuing to make things surprisingly interesting, he then hooked his tee shot on 18 into the deep grass by a series of bunkers. With an awkward stance and lie, and the potential for a second shot that could spray anywhere, Koepka kept himself composed (while a probable ex-employee for CBS decided to focus the telecast on an interview with Johnson), and managed to get himself back onto the fairway.
From there, Koepka pitched to within six feet of the hole. He sunk the par putt, exploding into the most emotion he has shown, perhaps in his entire career.
Koepka’s 19 birdies for the week led the field. He also led in strokes gained: approach-the-green (despite losing 1.6 strokes to the field on Sunday), strokes gained: tee-to-green, strokes gained: total, and greens in regulation.
Koepka’s Final Stats
Driving: 313.2 yards (11th)
Fairways: 32/56, 57.1% (62nd)
Greens: 53/72, 73.3% (1st)
Putts/GIR: 95/1.8 (44th)
Scores: 19 Birdies, 42 Pars, 11 Bogeys
What It Means For Koepka
Koepka’s fourth major victory moves him back to No. 1 in the world rankings, the position he held at the end of 2018. He has undeniably become the modern king of the majors, and in one of the sport world’s biggest statistical anomalies, he now has twice as many majors (4) as he does victories in non-major PGA Tour events (2).
The list of accomplishments added to Koepka’s resume precipitously increased with this latest win. Among the more notable, he becomes just the seventh player in Tour history to win four majors before the age of 30. He is now the only player in history to defend championships at both the PGA Championship and U.S. Open, and he is just the fourth player to win four majors in an eight-start span.
Despite being in only his sixth full-time season on the PGA Tour and having made just 116 career Tour starts, Koepka already ranks in a tie for 20th in career major championships. Among those he is tied with at four include Raymond Floyd, Ernie Els, and Rory McIlroy. With just one more, he will have tied Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros, and Phil Mickelson.
Koepka’s 2019 Season
Cuts Made: 11
Wins: 2 (CJ Cup PGA Championship)
Addtl Top 10s: 3
Earnings: $5,905,127 (1st)
Earnings Per Start: $492,094
World Rank Before/After: 3rd/1st
Dustin Johnson: Just Short, Yet Again
An accomplishment he sounded hysterically unenthusiastic about after the tournament, Dustin Johnson has now finished runner-up in all-four major championships, the eighth player in PGA Tour history to join that club.
Johnson has undeniably had a tremendous PGA Tour career. His 20 career Tour wins include at least one in each of the past 12 years, extra impressive when it is considered that he has been a full-time player on the Tour for 12 years.
In 40 career major championship starts, Johnson has 22 finishes inside the top 25, with 17 of those being inside the top 10, and 8 of those being inside the top 5.
However, just one of those major starts was a victory: the 2016 U.S. Open. Getting into contention when he began the day seven strokes back is nothing Johnson should be ashamed of, but again falling apart when he had victory in his sights is troubling.
Very few players on Tour could finish runner-up at the first two majors of the year, such as Johnson has, and have it be considered disappointing, but with his talent and accomplishments, just one major championship on the resume feels very low.
At 34 years old, DJ is likely nowhere near the twilight of his competitive career, but if he does not start winning more on the major stage, he risks his career being remembered most for the wrong things.
Harold Vanished III
After back-to-back rounds of 3-under 67, Harold Varner III reached 5-under for the tournament, which earned him a spot in the final Sunday pairing with Koepka.
The 28-year-old East Carolina product, who was born in the same city as Lebron James and Stephen Curry (Akron, Ohio), had shown flashes of great ability in his four-year PGA Tour career, but to say that he had been nowhere near this position before would be a huge understatement. He had yet to post better than a T5 in any PGA Tour event, and in four prior major championship starts, he had three missed cuts and a T66.
Obviously – suddenly playing in the final Sunday pairing of a major championship, and with a major legend to boot, was going to be difficult, but Varner put together one of the worst showings out of a final pairing participant in major history.
Varner birdied the par-4 1st hole to get within five strokes of Koepka, but after a par on the 2nd hole he completely collapsed. He double-bogeyed both Nos. 3 and 4, and on the latter, sent a shot so far into the woods that Koepka had to help him find his ball, several of the images of which have gone viral.
From there, Varner added six more bogeys and a double, finishing with an 11-over 81 that dropped him to 6-over for the week, and plummeted him from 2nd place to 36th on the final leaderboard. Varner exhibited an excellent attitude after the round, and will likely learn from the experience, as many before him have, but such a spectacular collapse is likely to also create serious scar tissue.
A lot has been said about all the players at Bethpage who could not find their way in the difficult Sunday conditions, but a number of players shined as well.
Matt Kuchar has notched two victories in the current PGA Tour season, a big part of the reason he leads the current FedExCup Standings. While he was never in contention on Long Island this week, he played very well on Sunday, carding six birdies on his way to a 1-under 69 that jumped him into a tie for 8th for the week.
Kuchar now has seven top-10s on the season, with four of those being in the top 2. He has now finished in the top 10 in five of his last ten major starts.
Matching both Kuchar’s Sunday 69 and his 8th place finish was two-time PGA Championship winner Rory McIlroy. TaylorMade had been running a promotion for months where those who bought a specific driver would get it for free if Rory won, and while that did not happen, McIlroy should feel good that he was able to rebound from such a terrible start, as he had reached 5-over after his third hole on Friday and needed to birdie four of his final six holes just to make the cut.
Gary Woodland set the PGA Championship’s 36-hole scoring record a year ago, which ended up standing for less than one year, but with a field co-low 2-under 68, he at least managed to finish inside the top 10. Woodland birdied eight holes on Sunday, and for the week, finished second to Koepka in strokes gained: approach-the-green, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and greens in regulation.
Many, many players failed to find their games on Sunday, but some were especially notable. This week may have been the coming-out party of young Thai golfer Jazz Janewattananond, who reached 5-under through three rounds and played in the penultimate Sunday pairing, but he could not have finished his final round much worse.
After playing his first 11 holes in even-par, very good given the conditions, Jazz double-bogeyed the par-4 12th, and then followed followed that up with five consecutive bogeys to shoot a 7-over 77 that dropped him from T2 to T14 on the final leaderboard, which cost him a lot of exemptions and spots in the fields of other big events. With what he has shown this season, however, he very well might not need those exemptions.
Similarly collapsing down the stretch was Xander Schauffele, whose prior four major starts had included two runner-ups (including at last month’s Masters) and a T6. Through three rounds, he was too far back to realistically challenge Koepka, but at 3-under, he was in line for another excellent result.
However, his first 13 holes comprised 12 pars and a bogey, and then he carded a bogey on each of the final five holes to shoot a 6-over 76 and finish T16.
Koepka’s final round playing partner was very, very bad, but Dustin Johnson’s was not all that much worse. Hideki Matsuyama has seen his career fall off significantly over the past two years, but at 4-under through three rounds, he looked as though might be finding his A game again.
Unfortunately for the Japanese native, Matsuyama more than cancelled out three Sunday birdies with six bogeys and two double-bogeys. He shot a 7-over 77 and dropped into a tie for 16th place.
“Man, it felt great. You knew today was going to be a tough day when it was blowing 15 or 20 on the range. I left 10 feeling pretty good and left 14 not feeling so good. It’s very — it can change very, very quick. This golf course, it’s in the trees. You’re going to — once it gets above the tree line, it can do whatever it wants. You’ve just got to hang tough, and it’s been so enjoyable. It was nice to finish on 18. I’m just glad we didn’t have to play anymore, that’s for sure.”
– Brooks Koepka, PGA Championship Winner
Final Scores, Money & Points: PGA Championship
Bethpage Black Course | Farmingdale, NY | May 16-19, 2019