ERIN, Wis. — None of this was as easy as it looked, Brooks Koepka said, because nothing ever has been easy for him when it comes to golf. This time, even though the course might have appeared to be a pushover, he needed all of his considerable strength and an encouraging call from the man whose name is now right above his on the U.S. Open trophy.
On the eve of the biggest victory of his life, he spent some time on the phone with Dustin Johnson, who had powered his way to the 2016 Open title. The two close friends are practice and workout partners and they are equally low key. So the conversation Saturday night was not in the “win one for the Gipper” mold.
“There’s probably not that much that’s that interesting, to be honest,” Koepka said as he sat beside the tall silver trophy Sunday after shooting 5-under-par 67 at overmatched Erin Hills to tie a record by finishing the U.S. Open at 16 under. “It was a long phone call, for us. It was like two minutes.
“He just said I’d win if I stayed patient and kept doing what I was doing,” said the champion and recipient of the $2.16-million first prize. “I felt like I really stayed patient all week.”
For most of it, Koepka did what just about everybody else did (with the notable exception of Johnson, who missed the cut): He made birdies and shot low scores. But when the heat was really on Sunday and the course was marginally tougher, Koepka was at his best. He saved par 3 on the 13th hole, then birdied the next three to go on his way to a four-stroke victory over third-round leader Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama.
In every round of this first-time Open course, someone tied or set a scoring record. Koepka topped them all by tying the standard of 16 under set by Rory McIlroy six years ago. “I did not know that. I wish I’d have gotten up and down on 18, I know that,” said the 27-year-old from Wellington, Fla., and Florida State. “But it’s still a pretty cool accomplishment.
“I played really solid from the moment we got here Monday and all the way through today. I got hot with the putter there for a little bit today, and all week. All around my game was pretty solid and I couldn’t be happier.”
Koepka is the seventh consecutive first-time major winner. In many respects, though, he is one of a kind. He has said he is “not a golf nerd,” that he preferred baseball, along the lines of his great uncle Dick Groat, the 1960 National League Most Valuable Player for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Still, Koepka had enough golf in his blood to travel all over Europe, playing the European Tour’s developmental circuit and then the European Tour itself before earning a spot on the PGA Tour in 2014. Despite having had many strong finishes and making the 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup squad, he was self-critical until yesterday for having won just once on the American tour.
“I felt like I just never fully came together. I put myself in some good chances in the majors over the last few years and never really quite came through,” he said.
Koepka has improved under swing coach Claude Harmon, son of Johnson’s swing coach, Butch Harmon. Koepka managed his ball flight in the wind Sunday.
“When he’s on, there are not many people in the world better,” said Justin Thomas, who finished tied for ninth after shooting a record 9-under 63 Saturday.
Bill Haas, one of seven golfers to go double-digits under par (along with first-round leader Rickie Fowler), said: “He’s just really impressive physically. He just pounds the ball. He’s got a lot of Dustin Johnson in him, just long and straight. You watch him hit, it’s a little different from most of us out here. And he’s got a great demeanor. He’s just like Dustin, I would say, where nothing seems to bother them.”
Just like Johnson, Koepka is a U.S. Open champion. Plus, he is pleased with himself and satisfied he chose not to pursue baseball. “I think so,” he said. “I think I’ll be all right.”