Koepka ties low­est 72-hole Open score to claim 1st ma­jor

New York Post - - SPORTS - By MARK CANNIZZARO mark.cannizzaro@ny­post.com

ERIN, Wis. — In de­fense of his 2016 U.S. Open ti­tle, Dustin John­son failed to make the cut this week. But when John­son left Erin Hills Fri­day, he ap­par­ently was not fin­ished hav­ing an im­pact on this U.S. Open.

John­son, whose flat­line per­son­al­ity bor­ders on cata­tonic at times, would never be mis­taken as a mo­ti­va­tional speaker. Yet there he was on Satur­day night call­ing his pal Brooks Koepka to give him a pep talk in ad­vance of Sun­day’s fi­nal round.

Koepka en­tered the day one shot out of the lead and play­ing in the sec­ond-to-last pair­ing, and John­son called to tell him he was good enough to win his first ca­reer ma­jor cham­pi­onship — the same way John­son had done it a year ago at Oak­mont.

“Dustin ac­tu­ally called me and told me, ‘Just stay pa­tient, just keep do­ing what you’re do­ing, you’re go­ing to win the thing,’ ’’ Koepka said af­ter storm­ing to a four-shot victory.

Asked to ex­pand on the con­ver­sa­tion he had with John­son, Koepka laughed and said, “Yeah, I mean there’s prob­a­bly not that much that’s that in­ter­est­ing to be hon­est. It was a long phone call. For us it was like two min­utes. It wasn’t much.’’

It was, ap­par­ently, more than enough.

With most of his clos­est com­peti­tors some­what run­ning in place in the fi­nal round, Koepka pinned the gas pedal to the floor on the back nine and left ev­ery­one else wan­der­ing aim­lessly in the waist-high fes­cue grass lin­ing the fair­ways.

Koepka, who en­tered the week with only one ca­reer PGA Tour win, turned a tight fi­nal round — with Rickie Fowler, Brian Har­man, Tommy Fleet­wood, Justin Thomas and a late charge from Hideki Mat­suyama all in the mix at dif­fer­ent parts of the day — into a run­away boat race.

The 27-year-old who went to Florida State and lives in South Florida, be­came the sev­enth con­sec­u­tive ma­jor cham­pi­onship win­ner to be­come a first-time ma­jor win­ner.

Koepka sep­a­rated him­self from the field with birdies on 14, 15 and 16, fin­ished 16-un­der par af­ter shoot­ing a 5-un­der 67 Sun­day. The 16-un­der score tied Rory McIl­roy’s U.S. Open record set in 2011 at Con­gres­sional.

“He birdied 14, 15, 16, and that was kind of lights out,’’ Har­man said. “You’ve got to tip your cap: He went and won the golf tour­na­ment on the back nine.’’

Fleet­wood, who was paired with Koepka, called his play­ing part­ner’s per­for­mance “bril­liant down the stretch.’’

“He wasn’t miss­ing shots from 13 on­wards,’’ Fleet­wood said. “He just cruised and he played great. It was very good to watch.’’

Har­man, who took a one-shot lead into the day and shot an even­par 72, fin­ished tied for sec­ond at 12-un­der with Mat­suyama, the No. 4 ranked player in the world and bid­ding to be­come the first Ja­panese player to win a ma­jor.

Mat­suyama shot a 6-un­der-par 66 to post 12-un­der as the leader in the club­house at a time when Koepka was 13-un­der. Then Koepka went on his back-nine birdie bar­rage to put the tour­na­ment to bed.

Fleet­wood, a 26-year-old Brit, shot 72 and fin­ished 11-un­der.

Fowler, who fin­ished tied for fifth for his sixth ca­reer top-5 fin­ish in a ma­jor, to date has not shown the abil­ity to get him­self over the fin­ish line in a ma­jor. He shot 72 to fin­ish 10-un­der and never made a true charge. PGA Tour rookie Xan­der Schauf­fele and Bill Haas also fin­ished at 10-un­der.

This day, though, was all about Koepka from start to fin­ish. He was the best player on the course all day. He looked ut­terly un­flap­pable along the way.

“I felt like I’ve un­der­achieved,’’ Koepka said. “I’d won once on the PGA Tour, once on the Euro­pean Tour and I felt like I put my­self in con­tention so many times. I felt like I just never fully came to­gether. I put my­self in some good chances over the ma­jors over the last few years and never re­ally quite came through.

“I just felt like I should be win­ning more … and I just couldn’t stand the fact that I’d only won once.’’

THAT’S THE WAY IT GOES: Hideki Mat­suyama re­acts af­ter an er­rant shot on the 18th hole dur­ing the fi­nal round of the U.S. Open. Brooks Koepka kisses the tro­phy (in­set) af­ter win­ning his first ma­jor ti­tle with a four-stroke victory.

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