A Fourth For Koepka
The strongest field in golf competed in the 101st PGA Championship this weekend at Bethpage Black on Long Island, NY.
It was an earlier than usual date for what is now the second Major Championship of the year (for the last 47 years the PGA has been the final Major played each year).
The game has been in a state of Tiger Woods induced euphoria since the 43-year old’s triumphant return to competitive relevance with his victory at the Masters last month, but it was time now for a new page.
Woods opened his campaign with a disastrous double-bogie 6 on the first hole and he would not replicate the magic of 2002 when he captured the U.S. Open here. The 15-time major Champion would fail to make the cut in a Major (he would miss by one shot) for only the 9th time in his career.
Bethpage Black will test every part of a player’s game but it’s length (measures 7,468 yards with a par of 70) reduces the list of contenders to those who can over-power a course.
One such player is defending Champion, Brooks Koepka, whose mastery of golf’s biggest events continued when he fired an other-worldly 7-under 63. Koepka’s course record gave him a one-shot lead over New Zealand’s Danny Lee, whose 64 was almost as good, with England’s Tommy Fleetwood a further three shots adrift at 3-under.
There were five players at 2-under: South Koreans, Si Woo Kim and Sung Kang, Americans Pat Perez, Luke List and Chez Reavie and Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera. Four of the players in an 8-man group at 1-under were a quartet of American superstars: Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler with Australia’s Jason Day.
Lee would not repeat his brilliance in the second round posting a 4-over 74 but Koepka certainly was able to replicate his incredible play.
Koepka continued his assault on Bethpage Black backing his first round up with an almost as impressive 5-under 65 reaching the half-way mark at 12-under. His two-day total of 128 was the lowest in Major Championship history.
2019 has been a dismal campaign so far for 3-time Major Champion Jordan Spieth. The 25-year old wunderkind and former world #1 has plummeted all the way down to 39th in the Rolex world rankings. A suddenly resurgent Spieth though shot a 4-under 66 to move into 3rd place at the end of the day, looking to land the only Major missing from his resume.
He was joined at 5-under by List and Australian star Adam Scott who authored the day’s best round, a 6-under 64. Scott’s swing is still perhaps the best in golf and his ball striking remains sublime but watching him putt can be excruciating.
Their 5-under total was one better than Johnson and Americans, Daniel Berger and Kelly Kraft and unheralded Englishman, Matt Wallace.
But the PGA Championship was in the hands of one man, this was Koepka’s to win or lose. The first two days were a master class in modern professional golf tutored by a great player at the very height of his skills.
Saturday is traditionally known as “moving day” but there was very little movement in Saturday’s third round as Koepka kept his distance from his rivals.
The 29-year old Floridan played with the cool and calm that we have come to expect and his even par-70 was a blueprint on how to play with a 7 shot lead. None of his main rivals were able to mount any kind of challenge and he would enter Sunday’s final round with the same lead that he started the day with.
The day’s best moves came from Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond (that’s not a typo) and American, Harold Varner III whose 67’s were the best rounds of the day. They joined Johnson and List in a tie for second at 5-under and were for all intents the only players who could catch Koepka.
Not surprisingly it was Johnson would mount the only challenge to Koepka on Sunday under the Long Island grey skies. The 34-year old 20-time PGA Tour winner was 3-under after 10 holes and had trimmed the lead down to 4 but then an untimely bogey on the 11th hole coupled with a birdie by Koepka on the 10th hole and the margin was back to six.
Four straight bogies on the 11th-14th holes though by Koepka combined with a birdie by Johnson on his 15th hole would reduce his advantage to just one. Golf can make a very fickle mistress and what had once been a foregone conclusion now remained very much inconclusive.
But Johnson could not continue his momentum and bogies on the 16th and 17th saw him finish at 6-under, two behind Koepka, in what had been a much more riveting back-9 than anyone had thought two hours earlier.
Spieth, List, Wallace and Patrick Cantlay were tied for 3rd place at 2-under and they were the only other players under par for the week, emphasizing how extremely difficult a test that Bethpage Back had been.
Koepka has now won four of the last eight Majors and with this latest dominating masterpiece cements himself as the best player in the world. He becomes the first player in history, to have won two Majors, back-to-back, at the same time (U.S. Open: 2017 & 2018 and the PGA: 2018 & 2019).
It has been an astonishing body of sustained success that rivals what Woods did at the turn of the century and of what other legends of the game have done in their careers. That he is doing it in this age when there are so many great players just makes it all the more extraordinary.