Author: Alan Blinder
Publish date: 2023-05-21 19:07:30
PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Six weeks ago on Sunday, Brooks Koepka did not sleep. He had brooding to do and demons to chase. After everything — the ghastly knee injury, the agony of unfulfilled ambition, the taunts and the splenetic rift in professional golf that he helped personify — he had rallied to a Masters Tournament lead, and then he had fizzled.
He ultimately vowed, he recalled over the weekend at Oak Hill Country Club, never to “think the way I thought going into the final round.” On Sunday evening, Koepka found his vindication: a two-stroke win at the P.G.A. Championship, earning him his first major tournament trophy since 2019. It was Koepka’s fifth career major victory, tying him with figures like Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson.
It also made him the first member of LIV Golf, the year-old breakaway league bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, to win a major title since joining the circuit. And while Koepka’s triumph at Oak Hill may do little to stanch some of the criticisms of LIV — its ties to a repressive government, its disputed intentions, its gleeful instigation of a financial arms race in an ancient sport — it definitively ended the wrangling over whether men who play a smattering of 54-hole tournaments can prevail on golf’s grandest stages.
It also silenced the notion, one that seemed a little more off-the-mark after the Masters at Augusta National, that Koepka’s contending days were done. But this is a 33-year-old player whose results in 2022’s major season looked like this: missed cut, tie for 55th, solo 55th, missed cut. It had been easy to forget that in 2021, the sequence went like this: missed cut, tie for second, tie for fourth, tie for sixth.
By the end of last year, he had a swelling hunch that his recovery was nearly done and that he could, finally, be relevant again. Around January, he has said, he was certain of it.
“He is back to being healthy,” said Cameron Smith, who won the British Open last summer and then joined LIV later in the year. “I think that brings a little bit of internal confidence as well being out there and just being able to do your stuff.”
It did not look that way as recently as Thursday, when the prospect that Koepka would outlast a swarm of stars seemed closer to impossible than even improbable. He had opened his tournament with a two-over-par 72 and, by his own account, was out of sorts and struggling to strike the ball as he wished. He could not remember, he said, the last time he had hit so poorly.
But he was not that far behind because the tournament, the first major played at Oak Hill since a sweeping effort to restore some of the daunting tests that characterize Donald J. Ross-designed courses, emerged as one of the most fearsome P.G.A. Championships in recent decades, often evoking the rigors of the 2008 competition at Oakland Hills in Michigan. Of the 156 players who competed this past week, only 11 finished below par — a departure from 2013, when the P.G.A. Championship was contested at Oak Hill and 21 players finished in the red.
The stinginess came even with the course, with its perilous rough and humbling bunkers, being more accommodating on Sunday than it had been earlier. Smith, Cam Davis, Kurt Kitayama and Sepp Straka all shot 65s on Sunday, running them high up the leaderboard. Patrick Cantlay, who made one of the tournament’s scarce eagles, signed for a 66. Michael Block, whose day job is being the head pro at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club southeast of Los Angeles, had a hole in one at No. 15, the first P.G.A. Championship ace by a club professional since 1996.
But much of the focus on Sunday was on Koepka; Viktor Hovland, the budding Norwegian talent; and Scottie Scheffler, the No. 2 player in the Official World Golf Ranking. Koepka, his standing shriveled because of his ties to LIV, whose tournaments are not accredited in the ranking system, entered Sunday at No. 44. (The P.G.A. of America, which organized this tournament, is distinct from the PGA Tour, LIV’s rival.)
Koepka stepped into the first tee box with a one-stroke lead and doubled his margin in short order when he made a birdie at the second hole. He had played the hole to par the first three days, always reaching the green in two shots but leaving himself with long putts. On Sunday, with the pin at the front-right of the green, he needed less than 5 feet.
His birdie putt at the third hole required even less, after his longest tee shot of the tournament at the hole known as Vista, moving his advantage to three stokes.
The sixth hole, a threat to so many players throughout the tournaments, loomed. A par-4 challenge that the field finished in an average of 4.52 strokes, Koepka had survived it well enough on Thursday, Friday and Saturday: par in each of the first three rounds. On Sunday, though, his tee shot rocketed rightward, in an area by Allen’s Creek that would have been best to avoid. He took a drop and then, about 191 yards from the hole, struck it onto the green and eventually escaped with a bogey. Although Koepka followed with another bogey, Hovland also stumbled at No. 7.
At the turn, Koepka led Hovland by a lone stroke. Scheffler, a steady-voiced sensation since he won last year’s Masters, and Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open winner, were three off the lead.
Koepka answered with a tantalizing streak: birdie, bogey, birdie. Hovland had a chance for birdie at the 12th hole, but his tap from nearly 15 feet edged just left of the cup. With six holes to play, Koepka’s advantage was back to two strokes. Two holes later, it was down to one.
Havoc for Hovland came at No. 16, when, after his tee shot arrived in a bunker, he wielded his 9-iron. With less than 175 yards to the hole, he swung and blasted his ball — not onto the green, but into the bunker’s lip. His fourth shot reached the green. A bogey putt missed, leaving him with a double bogey. Koepka, in the twilight of his pursuit for his third P.G.A. Championship victory, made a birdie to lay claim to a four-stroke lead.
Scheffler made a birdie putt at the 18th green soon after to narrow Koepka’s path. Koepka himself narrowed it further with a bogey at No. 17.
He came to the 18th tee, still, after everything, with two shots to spare. He had not made a bogey on the hole, playing 497 yards on Sunday, all week. His tee shot raced 318 yards and thumped into the fairway, the towering grandstands in the distance and the galleries thick with spectators, ready to see whether, after everything, Koepka was indeed back.
He reached the green with the next swing, the applause rising as he marched up the steep incline. He knelt. He approached the ball, steadied himself and tapped it forward. The ball stopped just short — 3 inches, according to tournament officials.
Of course, there would be one last hiccup.
He tried again. The ball fell into the cup.
Indeed, after everything, Koepka was back.