With a Steely Resolve and Back-to-Back U.S. Opens, Brooks Koepka Earns His Place Among Golf's Elite

With his victory at Shinnecock Hills, Brooks Koepka became just the seventh man to win back-to-back U.S. Opens. No one would have expected this—except Brooks himself.
Publish date:

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Brooks Koepka knew before anybody else. That was the story of the week, the story of his golf life, and the story of the moment, as he stood on the 16th fairway at Shinnecock Hills on Sunday, his ball in flight. Koepka started walking, club in hand, the calm walk of a golfer who knows he hit it pure and wants to see just how close to the hole his ball ends up.

Early in the week, Koepka had told his father Bob that Shinnecock reminded him of Erin Hills, the site of last year’s U.S. Open. Brooks was surely the only person on Long Island who felt that way. Erin Hills was a birdie festival. Shinnecock pulled an 84 out of Rickie Fowler, an 80 out of Rory McIlroy, an 81 out of Phil Mickelson and the hair out of many players’ heads. But Brooks told Bob that Shinnecock, like Erin Hills, was a “second-shot” golf course—more so than the tee balls, the second shots on par 4s and par 5s would determine the winner. His second shot on the par-5 16th had put him in prime position to attack the flag. Now he walked, his third shot stopped inside four feet of the pin, and the crowd roared. Brooks gave the tiniest of waves. His stepmother, Sherry, walked off the course to wait for him by the scoring area, and pretty soon Erin Hills and Shinnecock Hills would have something else in common: A champion.

Ben Hogan, Curtis Strange, Bobby Jones, Brooks Koepka. They’ve all won back-to-back U.S. Opens, a distinction Koepka earned Sunday by shooting a two-under 68 to finish one over for the tournament and beat Tommy Fleetwood, who shot a U.S. Open record-tying 63, by a single shot.

Contending Until the End, Tommy Fleetwood's Historic Round Ends One Shot Shy

If Koepka’s name looks funny in that context, he doesn’t care, just as he doesn’t care if the PGA Tour’s other 20-somethings are more famous: “I mean, I always feel like I’m overlooked,” he said Sunday night. “It doesn’t bug me.”

Nothing does, apparently. Koepka basically declared himself the favorite Saturday night—“I feel like you’ve gotta take it from me, to be honest with you.”—and played like it all day Sunday. If he were any calmer, his caddy would have tried to perform CPR.

Look past Brooks’s thick biceps and dude-what’s-up grin, and you’ll see what Bob saw as he came off the practice green Sunday: “Those steely eyes.” Everybody wants to win. Some believe they can. Koepka expects to. He loved hearing golfers complain all week. Golf’s toughest tournament is Brooks Koepka’s idea of a good time.

“It’s because I never let him win at anything,” Bob said. “The idea is, life’s not fair. You have to go take it. He wasn’t going to back down from anyone. He fought through and did it. We’d play cards when he was two and three years old…whatever it was, I never let him win. My father did that with me. My brother and I are very competitive. No one lets you win in life, period.”

Bob has seen all sorts of history on Long Island this month. He landed in time to watch Justify win the Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown, and then he saw Brooks become the first golfer since Strange in 1988 and 1989 to win back-to-back U.S. Opens. Bob did not bet on Justify, but he did take Brooks in a pool with his buddies at Lost City Golf Club in Atlantis, Fla.

Ten years ago, nobody would have bet on Koepka to become a two-time major champion. Except, perhaps, Brooks. He never won a junior event in Florida. When he left for Florida State, after never being a highly touted recruit, “he was probably 15 yards longer than me,” Bob said, “which is not anything to brag about.”

Make No Mistake: Phil Mickelson Admitted to Cheating and Should Have Been Disqualified

Brooks added 30 yards to his tee shots by December of his freshman year. Since then, he has worked his way into a conversation with players who had a head start toward excellence: McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas. Koepka saw himself in that group before anybody else. He has a natural feel for the game, and a simple confidence in his ability; after a wrist injury sidelined him for three months this year, he returned, picked up a club and felt very little rust: “I think the first day I hit balls, everything came out exactly the way it should have.” He was not surprised: “I know what I’m doing. I know how to swing a golf club.”

Koepka worked out with his buddy Dustin Johnson, who would finish third after a poor putting display, on Saturday and Sunday morning, then whipped him Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t easy. He just made it look that way.

Every time he found trouble, he found his way out of it. On the par-3 11th, he yanked his tee shot to the left, and he was in such a bad spot that he said, “I would have taken double [bogey]. We were in jail. You can’t miss it there.” He calmly blasted out of the rough into a bunker across the green, which was exactly his plan. He got up and down for one of the most rewarding bogeys of his life.

On the par-4 14th, Koepka missed the fairway. Bob was inside with a PLAYER GUEST pass dangling from his neck and a radio earpiece over his left ear, and the radio announcers said Brooks had a horrible lie. He made par anyway.

And then there was that shot on 16. The hole had been a leading cause of profanity all week (“I don’t have anything nice to say about that green,” Koepka said Saturday.) but now he had a short putt to go to even par and take control of the Open. On the nearby 18th, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson teed off while Koepka waited. Rose had let the rustling in the gallery affect him near the end of his Friday round, the kind of tiny lapse that can cost a man a U.S. Open. Koepka waited, sank his putt, and Bob knew: The tournament was his now.

Brooks parred the 17th to reach No. 18 needing only a bogey to win the championship. He hit a lousy second shot, but he missed (with an assist from the grandstand) in the right place—left, in the short stuff, with ample green to work with. Chip, lag, tap-in, championship, bro hug for his caddie. This is how Brooks Koepka does it. Maybe we ought to expect it, too.