First-time winner ushers in new era of PGA excellence
RIN, Wis. — The 117th U.S. Open marked the first time since 1994 that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were both absent from a major championship and guess what? They weren’t missed. Tiger has a bad back and Phil was at his daughter’s graduation, leaving America’s national championship to fend for itself. There was a time when their presence overshadowed just about everyone else and God forbid if neither was in contention on Sunday. It meant certain death for television ratings. Truth is the sport has been in transition from their era of dominance for a while now. On Sunday, Brooks Koepka provided the exclamation point. If you don’t follow golf you probably didn’t recognize the names on the leaderboard Sunday. With Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day failing to make the cut, the list of contenders was filled with players looking to become the seventh straight first-time major winner. And that’s not a bad thing. We’ve been waiting to see who will be the next Tiger Woods. Quite frankly, we’d better get accustomed to the fact that may never happen, not with the depth and the talent that was on display this weekend, and especially on Sunday when the wind finally arrived just in time to make Erin Hills play like its architects envisioned. With gusts up to 25 mph and the greens slick as glass, it became a true test of survival that ended with Koepka taking control with three birdies on 14, 15, and 16. His 5-under par 67 gave him a winning total of 16under par, tying the lowest 72-hole score in relation to par in U.S. Open history. “I played really solid from the moment I got here,” Brooks said. “All-around my game was pretty solid and I couldn’t be happier.” It was a terrific final round with a bevy of young players trying to prove they had what it takes to win a major. There was Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, shooting a 6-under par 66 to post 12-under while the remaining leaders had five holes to play. There was Tommy Fleetwood of England trying desperately to hang in contention after three bogeys on the front side threatened to make him irrelevant. There was Brian Harman, the 54-hole leader from Georgia, trying to prove Erin Hills isn’t just for big hitters, and there was Rickie Fowler, trying again to erase the label of being the best player yet to win a major. And there was Koepka, a self-proclaimed underachiever because he entered with just one Tour victory and tons of potential. “I couldn’t stand the fact, I’d only won once,” he said. A member of the winning U.S. Ryder Cup team last fall, he had said the pressure of playing in the final round of the U.S. Open would be nothing compared to the intensity of playing at Hazeltine where the Americans ended an eight-year drought by beating the Europeans. He played like it on Sunday. Calm, cool and courageous, he posted birdies on his first two holes and another at the par-4 8th to take the lead. And even after a bogey at the par-4 10th, the 27-year-old steadied himself enough to save par on the next three holes before making a 5-footer at the 14th for the first of those straight birdies that put a strangle hold on the tournament. “I don’t think I ever got nervous,” he said. Koepka is a buddy and workout partner of Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open champion. They are men of few words, but Johnson called him before Sunday’s round and told him to “stick to his game plan.” Koepka did that. “The more patient I become the more I can put myself in these situations,” he ssaid. Somewhere Woods, a vice captain at the Ryder Cup, and Mickelson, the team leader, had to be applauding their Ryder Cup teammate. Their sport has welcomed a new star.