ST. LOUIS — “Almost” was the word that swept through the PGA Championship Sunday. It was almost historic, almost a capper on an amazing medical comeback, almost an inspired and unforgettable victory. That is what everyone was saying. Well, almost everyone.
Not Brooks Koepka, who actually accomplished all of those things and established himself as golf’s new big star and a likely future Hall of Famer by winning his second major in two months and his third in little more than a year. What’s more, he used his physical and mental strength to fend off an epic charge from Tiger Woods, the man who almost won.
He followed up his U.S. Open victory on a tough Shinnecock Hills course by shooting lights-out at the much more generous Bellerive Country Club. After he finished Sunday at 16 under par, with a tournament-record low 264 through the four rounds, Koepka joked about the relative support for the champion and for the 14-time major winner who finished second.
“You could hear a different roar about every 30 seconds. I think other than me and my team, everybody was rooting for Tiger,” Koepka said. “I mean, as they should. He’s probably the greatest player to ever play the game and to have the comeback that he’s having is incredible. Being part of that as a fan is cool and even when you’re playing, it’s still pretty neat. It kind of pushes you to step up your game. I mean, you have to, because you know he’s right there if you fall.”
Koepka did not fall, though. He made a solid par-4 save on No. 6 after having made two bogeys in a row. After Adam Scott, another of the players Koepka idolized, tied for first at 14 under, Koepka made birdies on 15 and 16. “That’s how you win these things. You step up and make a great shot,” Scott said.
A couple of stress-free pars later, and Koepka was getting a congratulatory hug from Woods.
“What he did at Shinnecock, just bombing it, and then he’s doing the same thing here,” Woods said of the champion. “I played with him in a practice round and he was literally hitting it 340, 350 [yards] in the air. And when a guy is doing that and hitting it straight and is as good a putter as he is, it’s tough to beat.”
Words like that were often said about Woods in his heyday. As much as Koepka thrives on the perception of being overlooked, he is unable to dismiss these days. He became only the fifth player ever to win the U.S. Open and the PGA in the same year, joining the fanciest of company — Gene Sarazen (1922), Ben Hogan (1948), Jack Nicklaus (1980) and Woods (2000).
One extra interesting aspect was that, while almost everybody was focusing on Woods’ comeback from spinal fusion surgery, Koepka’s season is itself a huge study in resilience. He missed three months — and the Masters — with a hand injury that made him doubt if he ever would be the same player again.
“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,” the 28-year-old said, crediting his doctors and trainers. "What I’ve done is very impressive. I can’t even believe it.”
His focus and determination seem to hit their peak at the majors. Another advantage is his almost otherworldly calm. At the champion’s news conference, he was asked if he could remember ever having been rattled or intimidated. “I honestly can’t," he said. "I have a lot of self-belief. I knew, even today, when everybody was making that charge, if I just hung in there, made one more shot, I was going to have a chance to kind of separate myself a little bit."
Inner strength helped him carry his family (including younger brother Chase, now a European Tour pro) when he was a college student and his single mom, Denise Jakows, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She survived and was there Sunday.
Even before his two majors, Koepka’s good buddy Marc Turnesa, a PGA Tour pro from Rockville Centre, said, “He’s going to be the No. 1 player in the world.”
Koepka is not quite at that level, but at this rate, it can be said he is almost there.
How The 2018 PGA Championship Sets up the 2019 PGA Championship in May at Bethpage Black
*The idea that the PGA is the weak sibling among the four major championships is blown out of the water because the event that ended Sunday in St. Louis was the most thrilling and compelling major this year
*If he does not win the Masters, Tiger Woods will go for his first major title since 2008, playing a course on which he won at his peak (2002 U.S. Open). And if he does win the Masters, what momentum he will bring.
*Brooks Koepka, having won two U.S. Opens in a row, goes for his second PGA Championship in a row.
*Koepka, having won the Open at Shinnecock Hills, goes for the Long Island double, a second major here within 11 months.
*Jordan Spieth again tries to complete the career Grand Slam.