While Patrick Reed was winning the Masters in April, Brooks Koepka sat at home in Florida, nursing a left wrist injury that had kept him off the golf course for most of the previous four months. He wouldn’t be cleared to take full swings with his wedges or irons until the Monday after his friends and fellow golfers had departed Augusta National.
That didn’t leave much time for Koepka to prepare to defend his 2017 United States Open title. But his swing coach, Claude Harmon III, knew Koepka would be fine when he saw that he was glued to the television, watching the end of the Masters instead of the beginning of the Major League Baseball season.
Koepka has “never really been a golf nerd,” Harmon said, but not being able to play changed his relationship to the game. “He watched the Masters, and I really believe he fell in love with golf again,” the coach said.
Koepka, 28, who saw himself as a frustrated baseball player slumming in golf for much of his teens and 20s, on Sunday endeared himself to the golf nerds who obsess over the game’s history by becoming the third professional to win consecutive men’s national championships since 1949, after Ben Hogan in 1950 and 1951, and Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989.
“It’s really incredible,” Koepka said, adding: “I don’t want to say I didn’t think I could do it, but I knew that it was going to be that much more difficult. And to finally do it, it’s much more gratifying the second time. I can really appreciate how hard it is to win a major.”
When Koepka won last year at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, he finished at 16 under, tying the U.S. Open record set by Rory McIlroy at Congressional in 2011. But Shinnecock, which hosted the tournament for the fifth time, has been known to flummox the world’s best golfers, as the late part of Saturday’s round demonstrated. Amid warm temperatures and stiff winds, it produced soaring scores and scathing reviews of the setup. Koepka, though, seemed unperturbed.
“You’ve got to keep going, keep plugging away and don’t get caught up in all the talk and just keep focused on what you’re doing,” he said after his victory, adding, “Sometimes you feel like you are about to break mentally, but that’s what I enjoy.”
Fans enjoy watching Koepka pulverize the ball off the tee. If he had hit fastballs as well as he does golf balls, Koepka probably would have pursued a major-league career. His father was a pitcher in college, and until recently Koepka felt as if golf had chosen him more than the other way around. As his coach noted, it wasn’t until Koepka became injured and the game was temporarily taken away from him that he realized how deeply he felt about it.
“I missed the preparation, I missed the competitiveness,” Koepka said. And that wasn’t all: “You make a lot of friends out here.”
His camaraderie with his peers separates Koepka from Hogan and Strange, who cut solitary figures on the golf course. Their intensity could be off-putting.
But Strange has mellowed with age. As part of his reporting duties for Fox Sports, he walked the final round alongside Koepka and Johnson, and he said he was rooting for Koepka to win.
“I had a chance, I definitely had a chance,” Reed said. “Just too many missed putts, and at the end of the day, just needed to hit my approaches a little closer.”
Koepka’s putting was his salvation, especially at the 11th hole, where he drained a 15 footer to salvage a bogey. “That was like making a birdie, maybe even making an eagle, it felt like, because it could have been a big momentum shift there,” Koepka said.
The tournament’s Father’s Day finish was a sweet topping on the Sunday drama, with players rhapsodizing about the paternal bonds that cemented their love for the game. Fleetwood signed for his 63, then said he planned to play with his 9-month-old son, Franklin, while he waited to see if any of the 26 players who teed off after him could improve on his cumulative score of two over 282.
It was Fleetwood’s first Father’s Day with a child and one sensed, from the way his face brightened when he talked about his son, that the day was special even if he did miss the 8-foot putt on the final hole that would have meant a record-breaking 62 — and possibly would have forced a playoff.
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