PGA Championship May Decisively Tilt Johnson, Koepka's 'Friendly' Rivalry

Brooks Koepka's off-hand comment belittling his friend's sole major victory could result in motivation or humiliation for Dustin Johnson at the PGA Championship.
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The final round of the PGA Championship will be a great test of Brooks Koepka. Not of his golf skills, which are well-established, or his ability to close out a major, which is somehow more established, but of his view of majors. Koepka figures he will beat half the field because he is better. Another quarter of the field will change its approach because it’s a major, psyching themselves out. Some of the rest won’t play well. That leaves “a handful,” as Koepka has said.

Well, here we are, three rounds in. And there are more than a handful of guys standing between Koepka and his third straight PGA Championship. Twelve players are within three shots of the lead, including stars Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Jason Day and Bryson DeChambeau. Only one of the 12, Scottie Scheffler, would be a true surprise winner (and only because the young Scheffler, who has plenty of game, has yet to win a PGA Tour event.) Add the guys who are four shots back, and it feels like anything can happen, unless you are Brooks Koepka. Then you expect one thing to happen.

Koepka expects to win. He didn’t say this, but it’s fair to assume he expects some guys to choke, others to play poorly, and himself to be one of the few guys left standing. Each of his four major championships has emboldened Koepka – he has less to prove, but he fires more shots in press conferences than ever. Asked about trailing his friend (frenemy?) Dustin Johnson, Koepka said:

“When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized. I don’t know. I guess he’s only won one.”

Yikes. But also: True. DJ could have won a half-dozen majors by now. He has that one, a U.S. Open title. A year ago, he gave Koepka a bit of a scare on Sunday at the PGA, then was told he had completed the career runner-up grand slam: second in all four majors.

“Yay!” Johnson said, mockingly.

Will Johnson’s major frustrations creep into his head? Will DeChambeau’s “passion” (his word) or “hotheadedness” (mine) cost him a crucial stroke or two? Will Rose – who, like DJ, has won one major, a U.S. Open, but could have won more – finally come through again? Will Tony Finau show he belongs on top of a leaderboard, not just perpetually in the middle of it? And what do we make of the kids?

Collin Morikawa is young but plays such a smooth brand of golf that it’s easy to see him winning. Cameron Champ has the name and long-driving game of a folk hero. At five-under, four strokes off the lead, is a pairing of guys who could both make a run at this thing: Matthew Wolff, with the swing that shouldn’t work but does, and Xander Schauffele, who might be the surest bet to win a major of anybody in the non-major crowd. Tommy Fleetwood, Daniel Berger … if you’re one of those watch-every-week golf nuts, you can’t wait for the final round.

* Full PGA Championship Leaderboard Heading into the Final Round

It looked, for a while, like we would get a Koepka-DeChambeau pairing on Sunday, which would have been so much fun because of Koepka’s open disdain for Dr. DeChambeau. Instead, Bryson will play with Finau – two of the longest hitters on tour each vying for their first major.

The most intriguing names on that leaderboard, though, are Koepka and Johnson. If Koepka emerges from this group to win his fifth major, he will tie Phil Mickelson’s career total – and when he was Koepka’s age (30), Mickelson hadn’t won any. Koepka would surpass Rory McIlroy for most major wins of his generation. He would also, surely, increase the press-conference barbs.

Johnson, meanwhile, is 36, and he should have plenty more cracks at these … but he has already missed so many chances that you wonder if they haunt him. He is such an outrageous talent. He putted so well Saturday. Johnson can be awkward, which makes him easy to caricature, but if he finally wins that second major, it would be both hard-earned and feel good. We have seen how close he has been.

For a while, Koepka played the kid-brother role in their relationship, until Koepka caught and then surpassed Johnson as a player. Koepka beat Johnson at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, then again at the PGA at Bethpage Black last year. Koepka used that kid-brother perception for motivation for as long as he could, until it didn’t make sense anymore. 

Now Koepka is such a big star that Johnson might feel like people are overlooking him. Maybe he can use that as motivation, or maybe he finds it freeing, and maybe he wins this. Then again, when Koepka has been in this position before, he has capitalized. D.J. has only won one.

Read More:
* Key Takeaways from the Third Round of the PGA Championship
* Inside the Genius of Brooks Koepka