One day after making a mess of Shinnecock Hills, which nearly was unplayable in the third round Saturday afternoon, the USGA presented the world’s greatest golfers with a setup that rewarded good shots, and the ability to score made for an entertaining final round.
Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, starting tied for 23rd six shots behind the leaders, had the crowd roaring as he made eight birdies on his way to a 7-under-par 63 that tied the U.S. Open scoring record and enabled him to post a 2-over 282. Then Fleetwood watched for two hours as defending champion Brooks Koepka, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Masters champ Patrick Reed and Tony Finau fought hard to beat the leader in the clubhouse.
Koepka was the only man who could do it, one-putting five times in a gritty show on the back nine on his way to a 2-under 68 that put him at 1-over 281, one stroke ahead of Fleetwood. Koepka became the first repeat winner of the U.S. Open since Curtis Strange in 1988-89, and Strange witnessed it as the Fox Sports commentator who walked the course with Koepka.
“Man, it feels good to hold that thing again,” Koepka said as he hefted the trophy on the 18th green. “It really, really was testing this week, to be honest with you.”
Some said Koepka’s four-shot win last year at Erin Hills set up perfectly for him because it was a bomber’s paradise. But Shinnecock Hills was a true U.S. Open course that tested every club in his bag, and that’s what made his repeat so special.
“I knew it was going to be that much more difficult,” Koepka said. “It’s much more gratifying the second time . . . Shinnecock plays incredibly tough. You knew even par was going to be a really good score. It turned out it was almost impossible.”
Koepka’s finishing bogey meant everyone was over par. Johnson finished alone in third at 70-283 behind Fleetwood. Reed was solo fourth at 68-284, and Finau double-bogeyed the last to finish fifth at 72-285. After recording only three subpar rounds Saturday, the field produced 15 red numbers in the final round.
It was obvious early on that birdies actually were possible after the USGA put enough water on the greens overnight to soften them. Rickie Fowler went out in the third group and shot a 65 that was an 19-stroke improvement over his third round, and Fleetwood warmed up with a 3-under front nine.
Among the leaders, Reed birdied five of the first seven holes to get to 1 over to tie for second behind Koepka, who birdied three of his first five to reach even par.
“I was able to watch it early on TV and see how receptive the greens were,” Reed said. “You knew you had to go out and attack early. I was able to do that, but I just made too many mistakes toward the end.”
While the leaders were on the front nine, Fleetwood was lighting up the back side with four straight birdies from Nos. 12 through 15 to reach 2 over for the tournament. He hit a great 6-iron to the 18th green that left him a putt just over 8 feet. It broke slightly left at the end, leaving Fleetwood short of the U.S. Open scoring record of 62 and, as it turned out, short of a playoff.
“Obviously, that’s the putt that will play on your mind because that was the last shot you hit and that was your chance,” said Fleetwood, who played in the final group with Koepka last year at Erin Hills. “For me, just getting that close to winning a major again is the ultimate thing I’ll take from it.”
When Koepka got to the 10th tee, he knew Fleetwood had posted 63-282. “It was hard to miss,” he said. “It was the lowest red number up there — 7 under is incredible. Hats off to him.”
Koepka immediately birdied the 10th to get to even par. But at the 159-yard par-3 11th, he pulled his tee shot left of the green into deep fescue. Determined not to leave the chip short and see it roll back to the same spot, he hit it hard across the green and into a deep sand trap. Double bogey loomed, but he exploded to within 20 feet and made the putt to save bogey.
Then Koepka made par-saving putts at No. 12 and No. 14 and a birdie putt at the par-5 16th to restore a two-stroke cushion heading to the final hole.
“The one that really was massive for us was No. 11,” Koepka said. “[Making bogey] was like making birdie, maybe even an eagle it felt like because we could have been playing tennis just going back and forth. To make bogey there was pretty incredible, and I think kind of the reason why we won.”
It was just the stuff two-time U.S. Open champions are made of.
Back-to-back U.S. Open champions
Brooks Koepka, 2017-18
Curtis Strange, 1988-89
Ben Hogan, 1950-51
Ralph Guldahl, 1937-38
Bobby Jones, 1929-30
John McDermott, 1911-12
Willie Anderson, 1903-05