Defending champ Brooks Koepka has back-to-back U.S. Open wins in sights

Dennis Schneidler/USA TODAY Sports

Defending champ Brooks Koepka has back-to-back U.S. Open wins in sights

PGA Tour

Defending champ Brooks Koepka has back-to-back U.S. Open wins in sights

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Brooks Koepka has an effortless power that is the foundation of his game, along with the confidence that comes with being the defending champion at the U.S. Open. But on a day when his buddy Dustin Johnson shot 77, Rickie Fowler shot 84 and Phil Mickelson was so frustrated that he intentionally hit a ball while it was still moving, incurring a two-shot penalty, the most valuable traits that he possesses are discipline and patience.

Those traits helped Koepka recover from a bogey on the first hole with a birdie on the second en route to a 2-over 72 and a share of the 54-hole lead on a sunny, windy Saturday at Shinnecock Hills. He’s joined at the top by Daniel Berger, Tony Finau and Johnson.

“There’s nobody more confident,” Koepka said after exiting the scoring tent. “I won this thing last year. I feel really good. My game’s in a good spot. I feel like you got to kind of take it from me, to be honest with you.”

Koepka knows what it takes to win a U.S. Open and knows that while the course is being pushed to the edge by the U.S. Golf Association, if he stays disciplined and shows patience, he is the kind of golfer who is going to win.

“I enjoy firing away from pins and having to be conservative sometimes, and just finding a way to get through it,” he said. “I mean, my track record is pretty good in U.S. Opens. I feel like the harder the golf course, the better. It’s already going to eliminate so many guys. Some guys get down on themselves. You can eliminate them pretty much right away.”

It’s easy to talk the talk, but Koepka also walks the walk. After making a bogey on the 12th hole and moving to 1 over, his drive on the 13th went left, into the rough. From there, his approach shot fell short and hung up in the right rough. Instead of trying a high-risk shot over the bunker and toward the flag, which was positioned on a shelf six paces from the right edge, he chipped the ball down the slope and away from the hole. From there, he made a spectacular 61-foot putt to save par.

The thought process that went into playing the chip was as impressive as the putt.

“Sometimes in a U.S. Open, you’ve just got to take your medicine. If you can eliminate double, you’re fine. Bogey, you’ll be all right. That’s kind of the goal, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “And sometimes, it kind of rewards you for playing the correct shot or playing it how you should instead of being so aggressive.”

Koepka saw first hand how close the USGA is to pushing Shinnecock Hills over the edge again, beyond the point of being fair.

“The ball was running out so far on these greens, and, you know, some of these putts, there’s just no grass around the hole, so it’s hard to stop it,” he said. “Especially when you get it downhill, downwind, you have no chance of stopping it.”

When asked to comment on the 15th green, where he and Ian Poulter both saw good bunker shots wobble farther and farther from the hole, he said, “I don’t have anything nice to say about that green and the pin location, so I’m just not going to say it.”

But if you think Koepka is going to shy away from the challenge of becoming the first back-to-back winner of the U.S. Open since Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989, or whine about how hard the course is playing, think again.

“You can’t get frustrated. You just got to keep plugging away,” he said.

Disapline and patience helped him win last year at Erin Hills, overcome a wrist injury and maybe, just maybe, they will help him win another U.S. Open on Sunday.

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