It was certainly more interesting than he would have hoped, but Brooks Koepka is indeed your 2019 PGA Championship winner after racing out to a historic lead and then holding on for dear life. It’s the brooding 29-year-old’s fourth major championship in his last eight tries, a feat only three other golfers have ever accomplished: Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
Rightfully so, the enduring narrative from Bethpage Black will be Koepka’s coronation, but focusing solely on the winner of the tournament is a regrettably myopic way to consume one of the four biggest weeks in our sport. So let’s put a bow on the second major of the year with 18 parting thoughts from Strong Island, touching on Brooks (of course) but also so much more.
• With all that said, we begin with Mr. Koepka. (See, Brooks! We respect you!). His display on Thursday and Friday was as good as golf gets, plain and simple. Historically good stuff. Consider this—the course record at BPB (not sure why this hasn’t emerged as an abbreviation for Bethpage Black) coming into the week was 64. He shot a bogey-free 63 on Thursday, then three-putted 17 to shoot 65 on Saturday. As a result, he had the largest 36-hole lead in a major championship since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in the White House, a larger halfway advantage in a major than Jack or Tiger ever had.
And then he did just enough to hold on. Koepka didn’t have the goods on the weekend like he had on Thursday and Friday, but he still found a way to get across the finish line with his B-/C+ stuff. That’s almost as impressive as the two rounds that put him in that position to win without his best. When he stood on the 15th tee on Sunday, he had just made four straight bogeys, Dustin Johnson had just birdied 15 to narrow the deficit to one and the crowd was chanting “DJ! DJ! DJ!” And what did Koepka do? He smashed a drive 350 yards down the center.
The victory cements Koepka as the game’s true top dog, the current heir apparent to Tiger Woods. In 2014, we thought that was Rory McIlroy after he won the final two majors of the year and pushed his major count to four at age 26. In 2015, we thought that person would be Jordan Spieth after the 21-year-old won the Masters and U.S. Open. Now it’s Koepka who has emerged as the player to beat. McIlroy and Spieth failed to keep their momentum going, as they’ve combined to win just one major since. Time will tell if Koepka will go that route, or if this 23-month stretch is the beginning of a decade-long, Tiger-like period of dominance.
Me? I think it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s hard to see him go on a Spieth-McIlroy type dry spell. It’s hard to see him not winning, say, one major a year or so for the next half-decade. It’s hard to see him finishing his career with less than eight majors. That total would elevate him to all-time pantheon status. But it’s also hard to see him continuing this historic pace, which would get him to eight by the 2021 PGA Championship. There are simply too many variables in golf—other players and other interests, injuries and swing changes—to extrapolate the status quo moving forward. So while it’s hard to believe Koepka won’t continue Koepkaing, you wouldn’t have believed me if I told you after the 2014 PGA that McIlroy, five years later, would still be stuck on four majors.
• Koepka has now won four majors and two non-major PGA Tour events, which is nothing short of laughable. There are two main explanations for this, each of which is fascinating in its own way.
The first is that he simply doesn’t care about non-majors. That almost makes him even more frightening: a guy good enough to win when he flips the switch, but a guy who doesn’t feel that the Honda Classics of the world are worth flipping the switch for.
The second explanation is that majors are the best test of golf—that other players can mask their deficiencies on less exacting courses, but weaknesses are exposed by more difficult setups. Majors, under this logic, are the only true crucible for determining the world’s best, and Koepka’s disproportionate success in them hammers this point home. I find this to be the more plausible explanation for his 2:1 major-to-non-major ratio, and that we accept this as fact is interesting for another reason: it’s further evidence that the only thing that matters in golf these days are four tournaments. Not saying I disagree at all, but our anointing of Koepka as The One shows that non-major events are virtually irrelevant to how we rank golfers today. DJ has 20 wins and one major while Koepka has six wins and four majors. And look at the narrative surrounding DJ vs. the one surrounding Koepka.
• That was the most invested I’ve ever seen Dustin Johnson in a round of golf. He was visibly more focused and emotional. Shooting a front-nine 32 as conditions worsened—DJ was the only player from the final 12 groups to break par—and putting some heat on Koepka was hugely impressive.
You better believe it bothers Johnson to see his buddy emerge as The Guy when it very well could have (should have?) been him in that role. The dynamic in their friendship has completely flipped, from Brooks being Dustin’s buff lifting buddy to Brooks being the winner to DJ’s also-ran. Johnson wanted this one bad—not because he cares so much about how many majors he finishes his career with, but because he didn’t want to roll over and let Koepka pet his tummy. Maybe this is the kick in the arse DJ’s career needed. I absolutely love his chances next month at Pebble, and a win there would push this rivalry to the next level. Your move, Dustin.
• That being said, the way Johnson played 16 and 17 is a microcosm of his major struggles. In non-majors, he kicks down the door when he’s in contention. In majors, he trips on the doormat and falls flat on his face. Right after making a phenomenal birdie on 15, the hardest hole on the course, he missed a straightforward seven-footer for par on 16 then fans a 6-iron and makes bogey on 17. It’s wasn’t quite a Chambers Bay- or Whitsling Straits-level collapse, but he did not meet the moment. Again.
• Given our pre-tournament expectations for Tiger, his missed cut was shocking. But his comments after the round on Friday made it abundantly clear our expectations were warped. He wasn’t the least bit angry to miss the cut. He spoke about how proud he is to be the Masters champion, how he took time to let that sink in and, consequently, couldn’t prepare the way he needed to. That’s just the new normal for Tiger. He’s 43 with a fused back, and he has to do a ton of work to get to the point where he can contend for a tournament. Gone are the days where he can simply show up and play his way near the lead—there will be some tournaments where he’s peaking and absolutely a threat, and there will be others where, if he’s being honest, he knows he doesn’t really have a chance. The PGA was the latter. It was simply too big of an ask—even for Tiger Woods—to rev up the engines just five weeks after such an emotionally draining win at Augusta.
He’ll be fine moving forward, but we absolutely expected too much of him this week.
• What an interesting week from Jordan Spieth, who picked up his first top 20 of the season and first top 10 since last year’s British Open. He was able to do so thanks to an unconscious putting performance. In fact, it was statistically his best week on the greens ever—Spieth picked up more than 10 strokes on the field putting over the four rounds, the most he’s ever gained over a single tournament.
He seems to be one of the best putters in the world again, but he’s going to need to drive the ball way better to win. He hit just 48% of his fairways last week. That’s just not going to get it done, even when you have a historically good putting week. Still, Bethpage was definitely a positive stepping stone for Spieth, who will return to the winner’s circle sooner rather than later.
• People complain too much. In general, yes, but especially in the golf world. There was some discussion on golf Twitter this week that Bethpage was a boring venue because it was a “one-dimensional test of execution,” as though testing execution in a major championship is a bad thing. The hipster golf circle wants every venue to present options, to give short hitters a chance but also reward long-and-straight, to penalize wayward shots but also leave open opportunities for heroic recovery efforts.
Not every golf course can have everything. Augusta is the Mecca for recovery shots. Pebble will put way less emphasis on length. Royal Portrush will present options galore. Last week, the course was long and you had to hit the fairways to have a chance. Deal with it. And it wasn’t like only bombers had great weeks—Spieth and Sung Kang and Matt Kuchar, none of whom hit it farther than average, had great weeks, and Matthew Fitzpatrick (another less-than-long guy) shot 65 on Friday. The course was just fine. Better than fine, even.
• There was a lot said about fan behavior. Some thought they were too drunk and too rowdy, others found it refreshing to see golf fans act like sports fans. From what I saw, the majority of the “heckling” was good-natured, apart from the odd spectator who told Koepka to choke or yelled during DJ’s backswing on 17.
That will probably change in 2024, when the Ryder Cup comes to BPB. The reason crowds didn’t go full-tilt last week is because they weren’t really rooting against anyone. At the Ryder Cup, there’s a strong rooting interest tinged with nationalist undertones, which brings out the worst in people. I am absolutely concerned fans will cross the line early and often that week. It will become a huge story, prompting European press and players to question whether the Cup can continue at all. They’re going to have to do something—have a no-tolerance policy and kick people out, stop selling alcohol at a certain point, price out casual fans with super expensive tickets—or that Ryder Cup is going to get ugly.
• I’m all for the use of technology to augment golf broadcasts…as long as the technology works. The tracer CBS used was frequently wrong, often showing a ball headed for the rough on one side of the hole when in reality the ball was right down the middle. The putting tracker thing, which is cool in theory, is sort of useless if players go outside the line and still make putts.
And my knowledge of physics is elementary at best, but I don’t see the fourth dimension here.
• American players have now won eight of the last nine majors, yet the Americans have only won two of the last nine Ryder Cups. I know that’s not an apples-to-apples comparison time-wise, but it’s still jarring. The only logical takeaway is that chemistry matters, and the Europeans’ superior team dynamics more than neutralize the Americans’ talent advantage.
• Hell of a comeback from Rory McIlroy, who was seven over par through 21 holes, three outside the cut line. He played the rest of the tournament in six under, including 69-69 on the weekend, to steal the most backdoor of backdoor top-10s.
On one hand, it’s impressive that he kept his head in it and didn’t fold on Friday, because he so easily could have thrown in the towel, fired up the jet and been back in Florida sipping a martini by sunset. On the other hand, a performance like this is almost more frustrating, because it shows us what he is capable of when he gets it into gear.
His issue, though, is getting it to that gear. For whatever reason, he looks downright sloppy way more often than any other elite player. He hits wedges over greens and misses easy putts and makes big numbers, and you just can’t afford to do those things in the biggest events.
McIlroy’s inability to put it all together and avoid the blowup round continues to confound.
• The Official World Golf Ranking is incredibly flawed for a number of reasons, but for brevity’s sake we’ll pick one to illustrate. The OWGR has assigned a minimum amount of points winners on each Tour can receive. So the winner of this week’s PGA Tour Latinoamerica event, Evan Harmeling, received six world ranking points, more than all the guys who finished T23 at the PGA Championship. That, of course, is ludicrous. There were zero players ranked inside the top 500 in the world in the Latinoamerica event, whereas the PGA has the strongest field of any tournament in the world. Moreover, the second-place finisher on the Abema Challenge Tour this week (the second-tier tour in Japan) received more OWGR points than the guys who finished T41 at Bethpage.
I’m all for the developmental tours, but let’s not kid ourselves here, winning a PGA Tour Latinoamerica event is not even close to as difficult as finishing top 25 at the PGA Championship, and finishing second at a minor-league event in Japan is not akin to a T41 at Bethpage Black.
• Big-time shoutout to Rich Beem, whom I had listed dead-last in my pre-tournament rankings. The 48-year old, who held off Tiger to win the 2002 PGA Championship, hadn’t made a cut anywhere since 2016. He looked to be heading to another missed weekend when he made the turn Friday at +9, a full five shots outside the cut line. He would play his final nine holes in 30 to make it on the number. Then he bounced back from a Saturday 82 to shoot 69 on Sunday, one of only 11 players to break par all day. Respect.
• With Tiger gone on the weekend, Phil Mickelson became the clear fan favorite. Lefty has only grown more beloved as he advances to the later stages of his career, and the Long Island fans viewed him as one of their own.
He seems to the closest thing we have to a Golfer of the People. Which is curious, really, when you consider he’s a California kid, who went to Arizona State and worth about $400 million. But he’s used social media masterfully, portraying himself as a genuinely funny Average Joe who doesn’t take himself or the game too seriously. It’s a master class in PR.
• Harold Varner III got his first taste of a major championship Sunday and failed miserably, shooting 81 to tumble from T2 to T36. but you would have never known it. That’s how good his attitude was throughout the day. He’s one of the most likeable players on Tour, with an unshakeable optimistic streak and a smile that never leaves his face, even as he’s getting his butt kicked on the course. Here he is after the round, with two Bud Lights in hand, not at all bitter:
He also had the best quote of the week. Instead of giving the “play my game,” “he’s playing well” response to a question about Brooks’s dominance, he said this: “If you don't go to sleep and think, man, this makes me want to work harder, then I don't know why you're playing. I don't know. You can't sit there and just weep and be like, ‘he's so much better.’ I think that's going to push you. It almost pisses me off. That's what I think.”
• This sort of slipped through the cracks, but American-gone-European-Tour pro David Lipsky was penalized two strokes for being late to his tee time Friday. Apparently he was on the putting green about 30 yards from the first tee when fans started counting down the seconds he had until he would be penalized. He then grabbed his ball and ran to the tee but was too late. This is truly a shocking display of carelessness from Lipsky and his caddie. Just inexcusable on so many levels, and hard to believe this could happen in a major championship, especially since he didn’t oversleep or get stuck in traffic. He was right there. Just idiotic.
• I don’t find much juice in having 20 club pros play in the PGA Championship—it’s more gimmicky than anything else—but Marty Jertson might be the coolest guy ever. The VP of fitting and performance for Ping, he has had a hand in more than 125 patents, including for the design of the Ping 410 driver. He was one of three club pros to make the cut this week—alongside Ryan Vermeer and Ron Labritz, who took home low club pro honors—the most since the club pro contingent was shrunk from 35 to 20 in 2005.
• The funniest image of the week is that of the person transcribing Jazz Janewattananond’s press conference, thinking to his/herself “should I even try” and then completely mailing it in: