Brooks Koepka turned the biggest 36-hole lead in PGA Championship history into the biggest 54-hole lead in the tournament’s history simply by shooting a steady par 70 in the third round Saturday at Bethpage Black to maintain a seven-stroke cushion. Koepka wasn’t as spectacular as his first two rounds of 12-under-par play, but the important thing is that he’s a powerful frontrunner who refused to make the big mistake that might let the field back into it.
Jordan Spieth and Adam Scott, who were tied for second after two rounds, retreated with a pair of 72s that left them tied for eighth with Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay at 3 under. The best two rounds of the day came from lightly regarded Jazz Janewattananond and Harold Varner III who each shot 67 to move into a second-place tie at 5 under with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who bogeyed the 18th hole for a third-round 69. Hideki Matsuyama and Matt Wallace are tied for sixth at 4 under.
Schauffele, who shot a 68, admitted Koepka essentially has turned his competitors into little more than spectators to his display of power and precision. “I don’t know if the tournament is less fun because I’m 15 shots back or what it is,” said Schauffele, exaggerating only slightly. “But it’s very melancholic after today I’d say just because, every time I look up, I’m 10 to 12 back.
“No one likes to play for second, but that’s sort of what he’s doing to us . . . Everyone is here to win, but there’s only one guy who’s absolutely just destroying this place. I’m sure he’s having a blast. But for the rest of us, he’s making it awfully boring.”
It’s starting to look as though the rest of the PGA Tour players might have to get used to it. On Sunday, Koepka will be trying to win for the fourth time in the past nine major championships, and he can become the first player in history to hold back-to-back titles in two majors at the same time. He repeated in the U.S. Open last June at Shinnecock Hills and he’s defending the PGA title he won last August at Bellerive.
While athletes in some sports say it’s sometimes difficult to maintain focus with a big lead, Koepka said that is no problem for him.
“I’m definitely not going to let up, I promise you that,” he said. “I feel like when I’m over the shot, I’m very confident. I feel good about it, and if I’m not, I’m going to back off. I enjoy the confidence that I have and what I’m playing with right now.”
When Schauffele’s comment about how demoralizing it is for the pursuers to look at the scoreboard and see the gap facing them, Koepka said, “I’d love to force it on the field and make it as big a lead as I possibly can get. I mean, it would be nice to be able to make a 10 on the last hole and be OK. I’ll be satisfied if I just go play one more good round.”
The difference between Koepka’s third round and the first two simply was that he didn’t putt quite as well. Two of his three bogeys were the result of three-putts, and he left a couple birdie putts short but right in the middle.
“If I make those and shoot a couple under, I extend the lead,” he said.
Other than those miscues, Koepka enjoyed his walk around Bethpage Black and the atmosphere generated by the New York crowd.
“These fans are very energetic,” he said. “New York’s always got some of the best fans. I enjoy hearing the cheers. It’s actually kind of fun hearing some of the boos, too, like when you miss a short one on No. 9. You pretty much deserve that. But it’s really enjoyable to play in front of them and feel that electricity.”
Koepka said his plan on Sunday is similar to the one he had last June at Shinnecock when he began the final round in a four-way tie for the lead. “At Shinnecock, it felt like all I had to do was get off to a good start, and I did that there,” he said. “If I can get off to a good start, guys have got to push. If you’re going to push on this golf course, you’re going to make mistakes. I just have to have the same mentality, focus on myself and not anybody else.”
Asked if he has any doubt about winning his fourth major title, Koepka said, “No. I feel confident . . . There’s really a couple key holes out here. You play No. 7 well, play No. 10 and No. 12 well, and from there, you just hit the center of the greens and try to par this place to death.”