Recognize greatness: Brooks Koepka captures PGA, his 3rd major

Aug 12, 2018; Saint Louis, MO, USA; Brooks Koepka celebrates with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship golf tournament at Bellerive Country Club. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Recognize greatness: Brooks Koepka captures PGA, his 3rd major

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Recognize greatness: Brooks Koepka captures PGA, his 3rd major

ST. LOUIS – This story could’ve been about Tiger Woods.

It could’ve been about how the 42-year-old Woods put on a vintage display for the Show Me State. How he roared up the leaderboard for the second consecutive major championship, to within a shot of the lead with just a handful of holes left, and ignited the massive St. Louis crowd. How Woods, a 14-time major winner, nearly had No. 15, and his first in 10 years.

Judging by the gallery sizes Sunday at Bellerive Country Club, Woods was certainly the story in the eyes of the fans.

Brooks Koepka doesn’t blame them.

“Everybody was rooting for Tiger,” Koepka said. “I mean, as they should. He’s the greatest player to ever play the game, and to have the comeback that he’s having is incredible.”

Koepka also doesn’t care. As the crowd around Bellerive’s 18th green continued to collectively exhale from an exciting conclusion to the 100th PGA Championship, it was Koepka calmly putting the finishing touches on his third major victory in his last six tries and beating Woods by two shots at 16 under with a closing 4-under 66.

The biggest story Sunday in St. Louis? It wasn’t the greatest major championship golfer of the past two decades. It was the greatest major championship golfer at the moment.

At 28 years old, Koepka now has four career victories on the PGA Tour – and three of them are majors, which ties him with Jordan Spieth and puts him one away from pulling even with Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy. He’s also now two shy of equaling Phil Mickelson, Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson. The two-time defending U.S. Open champion now rises to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. And he’ll officially make the U.S. Ryder Cup team Monday as the Americans’ leading point earner.

“Brooks has always set incredibly lofty goals and if you look at the career that he’s had right now, we’re getting into some rare company of guys – and he’s still in his late 20s,” said Koepka’s instructor, Claude Harmon III, whose father, Butch, coached Woods for nine years, during which Woods won eight majors.

“… His game is as good as anybody in the world and I think he’s showing that right now.”

Yet somehow Koepka has always flown under the radar. For a guy who is 6-foot, 190 pounds of pure muscle, mashes 300-plus-yard drives on the regular, has good looks and a supermodel girlfriend, and on top of all that wins golf tournaments, that’s especially hard to do.

Underrated? Overlooked? Even disrespected? Koepka and his team felt all of that.

Harmon has plenty of examples that prove that point. The most recent came Thursday after Koepka shot 1-under 69 and didn’t receive a single interview request.

“If you guys think that goes unnoticed, it doesn’t,” Harmon said.

Koepka raved about the crowds that turned up at Bellerive, which as a golf course received plenty of criticism for its uninteresting and soft layout yet produced the most interesting final leaderboard of the major season. But Koepka also knew most of those fans were there to watch Woods.

He could see it, as Woods and Gary Woodland teed off on Sunday afternoon two groups ahead of Koepka and Adam Scott, with only Jon Rahm and Rickie Fowler serving as a buffer and all three groups sharing a hole at times on the back nine. And he could definitely hear it.

“No matter what hole you were on, you knew what Tiger did,” Scott said, “and it’s a really fun atmosphere to be in.”

Woods made eight birdies in Sunday’s final round but never grabbed even a share of the lead like he did last month at Carnoustie. Koepka made sure of it. Despite surrendering his two-shot lead entering the day after bogeys at Nos. 4 and 5, and seeing defending champion Justin Thomas draw even with him at 11 under with birdies on three of his first seven holes, Koepka didn’t fret.

Instead, he hit approaches to 10, 5 and 7 feet – and made all three birdies putts – capping his front nine and carrying a three-shot lead to the back nine.

After his putter went cold and he missed back-to-back 7-footers at the par-4 12th and par-3 13th holes, same story. No worries, even with Woods birdieing Nos. 12 and 13 to pull to within a shot, and Scott, Koepka’s childhood hero, tying him with birdies at Nos. 10, 12 and 13.

After a missed 12-footer from the fringe at the par-4 14th, caddie Ricky Elliott said to Koepka: “ You’ve got to push the button. You’ve got to get going. Your putts are going to start falling.”

“His two heroes were coming after him,” Elliott said. “If he was home watching on TV he’d be rooting for them if he wasn’t playing. He never flinched. I’m there clubbing him and he’s like it is Thursday afternoon.”

A hole later, Koepka drained a clutch 10-footer for birdie to retake the lead, and on the next hole, the 248-yard par-3 16th, hit a “laser” 6-iron to 6 feet, 7 inches and made the birdie putt.

“That will probably go down as probably one of the best shots I’ve ever hit under pressure,” Koepka said.

Koepka hit a lot of good shots, many of them with the driver. When other players were too scared to hit the big stick for fear of finding Bellerive’s thick rough, Koepka wasn’t afraid. He hit 26 drives of 320 or more yards, the most of anyone in the field, and was second in strokes gained off-the-tee. Oh, and he did it after discovering that his normal driver was cracked the Sunday evening before the championship.

“When a guy’s doing that and hitting it straight and as good a putter as he is, it’s tough to beat,” Woods said.

Koepka likely will be voted as the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year when the season concludes next month. Two majors. Two more runner-up finishes. And he missed nearly three months of action, including the Masters, because of a torn left tendon in his left wrist, an injury Harmon called potentially “career threatening.”

“It was pretty dire whether he would even come back this year,” Elliott said.

Koepka returned at the Zurich Classic in April, but two events later, at the Players Championship, he re-injured the wrist during a freak accident on the driving range the day before the start of the tournament.

“Our warmup Thursday morning at the Players was hitting lob wedge off a tee,” Harmon said.

Four rounds later, Koepka signed for a final-round 63 and T-11 finish. Two weeks after that, he fired two more 63s to finish runner-up at Colonial. The next month he was lifting the U.S. Open trophy for a second time. Now he’s got himself a Wanamaker.

“Looking where I was, sitting on my couch watching the Masters, and to think I would do this, I would have laughed at you and told you there was no way, no chance,” Koepka said. “And to do it is really incredible.”

Added Harmon: “He’s a fighter.”

But will people finally take notice?

“I hope so,” Koepka said, bluntly.

Some of those past perceived slights might be partly on Koepka. He doesn’t clamor for the attention as do some of his Tour peers. His confidence borders on cocky, and that might rub some the wrong way. But in this game, a player is ultimately defined by how many major championships he wins – and Koepka, now with three, has developed a reputation for showing up in the premier events. (He has 14 top-25s in 20 career major starts, eight of those top-10s.)

“I’ve heard some frustration that he hasn’t won a lot of other tournaments,” Scott said. “But he’s won three majors now, so he’s definitely winning the right ones. … He’s showing up at the right moments in the biggest events. I can see he’s got that mindset. There’s something inside his brain that makes him believe that that’s what he’s destined to do.”

Yeah, this story could’ve been about Tiger Woods. But that would be a major disrespect to Brooks Koepka. On a steamy Sunday in St. Louis, he deserved every bit of the spotlight.

It’s about time for others to recognize greatness. Gwk

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