PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland ended Brooks Koepka’s drive for a third straight U.S. Open championship in the most appropriate way: He Koepka-ed his way to it. The bombs with the driver, the calm gait, the dude-it’s-just-golf attitude—so much of what we saw from Koepka in the last two years, we saw from Woodland this weekend.
Woodland, a former basketball player, held off Koepka, a former baseball player, with the kind of golf Koepka could only admire. Koepka waited and hugged the new champion afterward. The relaxed Woodland greeted him like a buddy before a round of golf, not the No. 1 golfer in the world after a major championship.
“I played great,” Koepka said. “Nothing I can do. Gary played a great four days. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
Like Koepka, Woodland played aggressive but smart golf when he had the lead. He hit a wedge on the 17th green because he has practiced it forever. On the par-5 14th—a true par-5, a par-5 with teeth, a par-5 that laughs at driver-8-iron holes that claim to be par-5s—Woodland hit a 314-yard drive and faced a choice: lay up or go for it? His caddie, Brennan Little suggested 3-wood. Woodland hit it to within 16 feet.
Remember when Koepka kept the lead all weekend at last month’s PGA? Woodland was the second-, third- and fourth-round leader of this Open. He knew he would sleep well Saturday night. He did not three-putt all week. All of his long putts Sunday left him with gimmes or near-gimmes.
At last August’s PGA, while Tiger Woods sprinted toward the lead and the crowd at Bellerive Country Club seemed to want Koepka to implode, he shrugged and won. Well, this time Koepka was the big name trying to come from behind, and Woodland was the shrugger.
For a guy who played basketball and is a world-class golfer, Woodland is not much of a walker. He would be considered one of the slower players in a Great-Grandfather Invitational. But the effect here Sunday was impressive: Instead of worrying about Koepka up ahead in the next group, Woodland just let him go do his thing.
If Woodland was ever worried, he never played like it, and if he was ever frustrated, he never showed it. Woodland bogeyed the ninth hole, then high-fived a kid on his way to the 10th tee. He was disappointed enough with his tee shot on No. 17 to drop the club on his follow-through, but then he pulled out that wedge on the green.
By the end of his final round, anybody who thought he might choke because he is Gary Woodland realized he would not choke because he is Gary Woodland. Fans started yelling “Congratulations, Gary!” when he was on the 16th hole.
His final score of 13-under was not typical for a U.S. Open. But don’t be fooled: Pebble Beach was a heck of a challenge. The USGA got the setup right. The wind just didn’t quite kick up like it can. If the point of the U.S. Open is to identify the best player, this Open did its job.
Look: Woodland is not Koepka. Koepka is the best player in the world. Woodland is 35 and has won one major championship. But like Koepka, he has a belief in himself that preceded him choosing a career.
“I always just wanted to be successful,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was, what I was going to do.”
He arrived at Division II Washburn University in Kansas hoping to play in the NBA. In his first game, he had to guard Kansas guard Kirk Hinrich, and he realized he would not play in the NBA.
“That decision got forced on me really quickly,” Woodland said. “‘Okay, I need to find something else, because this ain't gonna work.’”
Pause, for a moment, and imagine the confidence of a man who a) thinks he can make the NBA from Washburn University and b) assumes he can be a pro golfer if that doesn’t work out. Woodland had won three PGA Tour events before this week. He expected to win more.
That was the guy who woke up with the U.S. Open lead on Father’s Day, FaceTimed his almost-two-year-old son Jaxson and his wife Gabby (who is pregnant with twin girls), and kept the lead in his back pocket all day.
On Saturday night, Woodland got a call from his agent, Mark Steinberg, himself a former college basketball player, who said, “I want you to hit 30 free throws in a row tomorrow.” It was the right choice of words, and not just because of Woodland’s basketball roots. Woodland was one stroke up on Justin Rose and four up on Koepka. He needed to relax, breathe and remember nobody could play defense.
His coach, Pete Cowen—who is Koepka’s short-game coach—texted him: Every man dies, but not every man lives, and you live for this moment. Woodland said he thought about that a lot Sunday.
His final score did not look like it belonged at a U.S. Open. But the way he won sure fit. He stayed in the fairway and finished second in greens in regulation. He had no double-bogeys and only four bogeys. He played the cleanest four rounds of anybody here.
“No, it doesn’t sting,” Koepka said. “I played great. There is nothing I can do. Sometimes no matter how good your good is, it just isn’t there.”
Before his interview near the 18th green, Koepka was introduced as “Bruce," which was just a slip of the tongue from the moderator, who of course knew he was Brooks. And maybe Koepka can use that or the occasional typo as fuel the next time he wants fuel. But considering an interview transcript referred to Curt Hinrich and Koepka’s playing partner, Chez Reavie, was REVIE on the leaderboard off the 15th green, let’s not make more of this than it really is. America needs more copy editors. The problem is bigger than Brooks Koepka.
Koepka played in the penultimate group and was, by far, the favorite of the galleries here Sunday. Most fans played a game of Follow The Guy Following the Leaders. When he birdied four of the first five holes, there was a buzz in the air that rivaled a Phil Mickelson charge, if not a Tiger charge.
Koepka is one of the most popular golfers in the world now. He just can’t win every single major, even if it sometimes seems like he can.
“It was awesome to come this close to going three in a row,” Koepka said. “I didn’t really think about it until I was done on 18 and realized how close I was to … I guess, not really making history but kind of tying it, I guess.”
Koepka would have tied Willie Anderson, who won three straight Opens from 1903 to 1905. Instead he goes off to the British Open looking to end his streak of one straight major defeat, which ties his longest streak since 2017. Koepka is the best golfer in the world. He played great and still didn’t win, which says a whole lot about Gary Woodland.