PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Brooks Koepka probably won’t win this U.S. Open. This is not a take; it’s a statistical fact. Koepka is four strokes behind leader Gary Woodland and three behind 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose. He is in a cluster with one of the few players who is just as talented as he is: Rory McIlroy, who is a stroke behind Koepka. This will either be a Woodland or a Rose runaway, or it will be a wild finish, and whatever Koepka’s chances are, they are surely well under 50%.
So let’s take a moment to appreciate what Koepka has done in the past 13 months. He won three majors: a U.S. Open and two PGAs. He finished second at the Masters. He is in the hunt here. It is one of the great six-major runs in the history of golf.
The run has been so incredible, in fact, that even though you know he probably won’t win, even though math is not on his side … if you had to bet $1,000 on one golfer, and I gave you the same odds for all of them, wouldn’t you bet on Koepka? He has the game, he has four major-championship trophies and he has a rare quality: He makes you expect him to win.
To understand, consider these two quotes. Koepka: “I don’t need to chase, don’t need to do much. Just let it come to you.” McIlroy, talking about the first seven holes, where it’s easiest to make birdies: “You can’t put yourself under pressure to have a crack at those holes either. You just have to let it happen.”
They are quite similar, except for this enormous difference: It sounds a lot more convincing coming from Koepka. He is more poised than anybody else in golf right now—maybe more than anybody else in sports. McIlroy, as gifted as he is, sometimes gets lost inside his own head. He knows he needs to play freely, but he doesn’t always do that. This has been a problem mostly notably at the Masters, but it has happened quite a bit since his last major win, which came almost five years ago.
Koepka said earlier this week that if he were another golfer and he saw KOEPKA on the leaderboard, “I’d think, ‘Really? Not again.’”
Does he think the other golfers will think that tomorrow?
“You gotta ask them,” he said.
Rose and Woodland do not seem overly worried, for different reasons.
Woodland is playing fantastic golf and he knows it. He carries himself like an older (he’s 35), lesser version of Koepka: He is a strapping guy, he hits it a mile and he shrugs at pressure. He slept on the lead Friday night and played great Saturday. He expects to repeat that cycle.
“I’ve obviously played well the last couple majors I’ve been in,” Woodland said. “I was in a position at (the PGA at) Bellerive last year after 36 holes. Sleep is not an issue.”
Rose is not playing fantastic golf and he knows it. He scrambled better than anybody in the field the first two days. He said Saturday was “maybe a one-click improvement. My stats probably aren’t great, in fairways hit and greens hit, but I hit some more quality golf shots today, some better flights. I did the right thing with the golf ball on a couple of occasions today, where you think, ‘OK, that’s closer.’”
OK, that’s closer. The man is one stroke off the U.S. Open lead with 18 holes to play, and he still hasn’t quite found his game. Rose is one of the best iron players in the world. He has to figure if he returns to that form Sunday, he can win.
Rose actually shanked a bunker shot Saturday, which he attributed to “playing such a high-tariff shot there.” We repeat: a high-tariff shot. A high-tariff shot! That has to be the best golf term you’ll read all week.
He meant he had to hit a high, spinny flop to a pin tucked just over the bunker.
“It’s not a traditional bunker shot that I was trying to play,” Rose said. “I was trying to play almost a karate chop at the back of the ball, take a quarter of an inch of sand and leave it within six feet of the hole. So a very high-tariff shot there.”
He paid the tariff, but still managed to get up-and-down after the shank for bogey. Meanwhile, Koepka continued to show an uncanny ability to think wisely but unconventionally. On Friday he chose to play his ball on a cart path near 18 rather than take a free drop. On Saturday, he put his tee shot on 18 behind the tree in the fairway, and then pulled 3-wood instead of an iron. The crowd cheered the bold play. Koepka says it was actually the conservative play.
“Uphill lie, ball above your feet, you’ve gotta cut it,” he said. “I really couldn’t see anything from where I was standing. I thought 3-iron—I couldn’t cut it enough or I might push it and hit the tree. I thought 3-wood was kind of my only option to get it up there and cut it.”
So you thought a 3-wood, left of the trunk, under the branches, with the ball above your feet, was safer?
“Yeah, I did. I felt like I could always hang onto it.”
He cut the approach, left it in rough safely right of the water, and made par. He walked off lamenting the putts that didn’t drop. Now Koepka will go out Sunday, try to make birdies on those first seven holes, and hope Rose and Woodland think, “Really? Not again.”
Woodland doesn’t seem worried about it.
“The leaderboards are out there,” Woodland said. “You’re going to see them. They’re big.”
So is Koepka. He says he doesn’t have to chase. Let’s see if Woodland and Rose make him.