FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Right when Tiger Woods was first starting his comeback and showing signs of life, in early 2018, it was common to hear younger players talk about how badly they wished they could have played against him in his prime.
It’s golf’s version of ‘We Want Bama,’ and it’s fun to think about slaying the king until you’re down to your third-string quarterback trailing 56-0.
Brooks Koepka’s run that will inevitably reach four major wins in his last eight tries Sunday at the PGA Championship is the closest thing we have seen to Woods’ prime performances. Koepka crushed the rest of the field before halftime, and a new generation of golfers is learning what Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els knew long ago.
Having a chance to win is a lot more fun than getting smashed by the same dude over and over again.
“You look at second place money and second place points and you go from there,” Xander Schauffele said. “It’s a weird week because you never feel like you’re gaining any momentum or anything, because every time you look up you’re still 10-12 shots back. So it’s kind of boring to be completely honest.”
Schauffele is 3 under for the week, and that’s really impressive on a brutal Bethpage Black golf course. That number put players firmly in the hunt at past U.S. Opens here, but this week it’s a blip on the Koepka-sized radar.
Charles Howell III played the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage and finished T-18 at 10 over, 13 shots behind Tiger, the only player to finish under par.
Howell’s 2 over this week and feels like he’s playing just fine. Thanks to Koepka, he’s even further behind this year at a 14-stroke deficit. That’s a boggling number in his mind, something he never could have foreseen while playing practice rounds early in the week.
“No. Not at all. No. I don’t think anybody would have,” Howell said. “Maybe (Koepka) did, which is why he’s playing so good, but it’s just incredible the golf he’s playing. As a competitor it’s impressive knowing how hard the golf course is.”
Even more impressive is the fact that Koepka essentially called his shot before the tournament started. He said majors are easier to win than normal tournaments because half of the field isn’t mentally strong enough and others won’t play well enough, leaving him just a handful of guys left to beat. He said he thinks 10 career majors is a realistic goal.
It was incredibly refreshing to hear Koepka speak so openly about his confidence knowing full well there could be some backlash from a large assembly of media who don’t always see eye-to-eye with the athletes they cover.
But to walk the walk and deliver like he has all week? That’s on another level.
“He talked some shit in the media room and he’s backed up every word of it,” Schauffele said. “As a competitor I have the utmost respect for him and I think it’s awesome.”
Harold Varner III is having the best week of his major career to date and he’ll be in the final group with Koepka Sunday. The 28-year-old shot 3-under 67 Saturday and sits T-2 alongside Jazz Janewattananond, Luke List and Dustin Johnson.
He knows it’ll take a historic collapse from Koepka to even have a chance and thinks a performance like this could impact the game long after the final putt drops on Sunday.
“The first thing that comes to mind is I think it’s great for golf,” Varner said. “If you don’t go to sleep and think, man, this makes me want to work harder, if I can be that good, then I don’t know why you’re playing. You can’t sit there and just weep and be like, he’s so much better. I think that’s going to push you. It almost pisses me off. That’s what I think.”
No one is even entertaining the idea that Koepka is going to lose this thing and nor should they. Koepka was asked point blank after Saturday’s round if there’s any doubt he’ll be holding the Wanamaker Trophy come Sunday.
“No. I feel confident,” Koepka said.
He made that clear early this week, and he’s making the biggest statement of his career at everyone else’s expense.
“Sort of what Tiger Woods did in 2000 every time he teed it up,” Schauffele said. “He made golf tournaments sort of for second place. Hopefully (Koepka) doesn’t do this too often in the future and we’ll scare him a little bit more, but this week it’s his.”