In the Shadows of Tiger's Undeniable Comeback, Brooks Koepka Remained Unflappable at Bellerive

Was it Brooks Koepka’s to lose or Tiger’s to win? Either way, the two put on quite a show Sunday at the PGA Championship.
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ST. LOUIS — Watch Brooks Koepka.

No, don’t just look at him. Really watch him. Look at him, and see those biceps, the strained cuffs of his green shirt, that tan, the white hat silhouetted against the fairway. They’re easy, the jokes about how much he squats or lifts or presses—how many pounds, how many kilograms, how many Wanamaker trophies.

But watch him. Watch how he sinks a putt on Bellerive’s 8th hole, the ruckus from Tiger Woods’s birdie on No. 9 still dissipating. Watch how he strides down the 18th fairway, putting together the final piece of the Bellerive puzzle like it’s nothing at all, as if he’s not playing alongside one of his favorite golfers, Adam Scott, as if the greatest of all time hasn’t been nipping at his lead all day from a hole ahead. It’s easy to label Koepka the jock, the slow-twitch muscle, the bore—but that’s incomplete.

On Sunday, Koepka was golf’s terminator.

Brooks Koepka Wins 2018 PGA Championship for Second Major of Season

Keep playing, Tiger; keep driving and chipping and putting, fist-pumping and club-waving—but he’s coming. On Sunday, Koepka heard the cheers ripple, from reality on the hole ahead of him to the crowds clustered around every scoreboard and television across the course a few seconds later. He fed off these cheers that should have been for him, from crowds that should have followed him, and he kept on playing, logging a 16-under 264 on the weekend, setting a 72-hole PGA Championship record. Down the stretch, it should have been Koepka’s tournament to lose, but somehow it was Woods’s to win from two strokes back; the humming crowds at Bellerive chose to believe in the man when they should have known the inevitability of the machine.

And then the machine walked off the course, across a bridge over the sea of fans, and the man grabbed him by the hand, and the two smiled, and there seemed to be no hard feelings at all. Brooksy, as Woods called Koepka, had just snared his third major in the last 14 months, and Tiger, as the world calls Woods, had just given the definitive statement: I’m back. Second place at the PGA Championship, 14 under par for the weekend—this is no longer a debate.

“It’s tough to beat when the guy hits it 340 [yards] down the middle, that's tough,” Woods said of Koepka after the round. “What he did at Shinnecock, just bombing it, and then he's doing same thing here. I played with him in a practice round and he was literally hitting it 340, 350 in the air. And when a guy's doing that and hitting it straight and as good a putter as he is, it's tough to beat.”

This was not a frustrated golfer, one who left the strokes he needed to win on the course. This was not a man agonizing—not publicly, at least—over a birdie putt left balanced on the rim of the 11th hole, a ball that almost certainly would have fallen in by now if they’d left it there. This was a guy grateful for his game, a guy for whom second place was almost unthinkable not even a year ago.

After his round, as Koepka posed with the trophy that bears the name Tiger Woods four times, golf’s favorite comeback story had a moment to ponder his progress. Asked if he could have fathomed in January contending until the final holes of a major, three weeks after hanging in until the final day of another, Woods answered with another question: “With what swing? I didn't have a swing at the time,” he explained. “I had no speed. I didn't have a golf swing. I didn't have—my short game wasn't quite there yet. My putting was okay. But God, I hadn't played in two years.”

Woods is supposed to be a throwback, a great. At one point, as recently as last year, he was more history than reality. But now, a toddler swinging from a rope along the second fairway—a toddler who in the few minutes the media pack has parked in front of his family has barely strung together two words of intelligible English—is speaking articulately: Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods. Just a few months ago, watching Woods chip from a bunker or putt along a tricky slope was cause to wonder if he could salvage a hole. Now, it’s a time to imagine something spectacular.

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But while we’re on the subject of the future, on the subject of doubt and pain and will-I-ever, can-I-ever, it’s important to get back to Koepka, who while all of St. Louis drove home still tittering over Tiger, got a moment to reflect on what he’d done. And the more he talks, the more the machine sounds mildly human. “There’s more stuff going on inside him than you think,” Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott, said after the victory. “But he’s able to siphon out everything he doesn’t need and put his energies toward what he does.”

And maybe that’s the key to Koepka’s success in on golf’s biggest stage; he has four Tour victories, three of them are majors. But here’s another dose of mortality: When it comes to majors this year, Koepka has only been healthy for the final three. (He tied for 39th, shooting two over par, at the British Open.) Really, it hasn’t been so long since he was watching the Masters from his couch, sidelined with a wrist injury, getting fat (his words, and perhaps not ever anyone else’s). This is hardly the story of the sport’s greatest wondering if he’s sidelined forever after a spinal fusion, but as Koepka questioned his future in the sport this spring, he was the defending U.S. Open champion, a golfer with the sense that he should be able to accomplish so much more.

And he has. Koepka seemed surprised when he was informed that his 72-hole score had been the lowest in PGA Championship history, and when he was asked about the legacy he’s building—three majors at age 28 puts a man on a certain pedestal—he admitted he hadn’t yet considered the gravitas of the day. He hadn’t yet, and then he did up there at the microphone, placing himself among the fabric of a sport that’s as dynamic in 2018 as it’s been in years. “Three majors at 28, it’s a cool feeling,” Koepka said. “It really is. You know, hopefully I can stay healthy. I’ve kind of had some trouble with that the past two years, three years. … I’m excited for the next few years. As a fan of golf, you should be excited. Tiger’s come back, what Dustin [Johnson]’s doing, Justin [Thomas], Rory [McIlroy], [Jordan] Spieth. It’s a great time to be a golf fan.”

It would be simplistic to call what Koepka did at Bellerive uncomplicated, but his was as straightforward of a win as they come. He hit hard and long and accurate on a course that played wet and slow. He was unflappable. “[My coach] Claude didn't say one word to me this week, I was hitting it that good,” Koepka said Sunday. “He just stood behind me and was like, ‘Yup, that's perfect.’”

It was perfect. No, it was 16 strokes better than perfect, two strokes better than the best story in golf, the man whose party Koepka crashed on Sunday afternoon. Or maybe it was the other way around—Koepka’s party, Tiger crashing. Does it matter? It was impossible to look away.