First-time win­ner ush­ers in new era of PGA ex­cel­lence

New York Post - - SPORTS - Ge­orge Wil­lis ge­orge.wil­lis@ny­

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.

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