Sweet 16 un­der

Champ breaks through, then breaks his fa­cade

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - Thomas Boswell

erin, wis. — When Brooks Koepka tapped in his fi­nal putt to win the 117th U.S. Open by four shots and tie Rory McIl­roy’s record of 16 un­der par in the an­cient event, the 27-yearold may have had the most muted re­ac­tion in the his­tory of hu­mans who were still breath­ing. He gave two lit­tle fist pumps. Upon re­flec­tion, he added one more.

“That’s prob­a­bly the most emo­tion I’ve ever shown,” Koepka said af­ter­ward. That? That was it? Ever? “What, you didn’t see that fist pump on 18?”

When this event ended, Koepka’s im­age might have been summed up — en­tirely in­cor­rectly — by one of his quotes this past week when he said that noth­ing in golf “re­ally gets me too worked up, what­ever hap­pens, bo­gey, dou­ble bo­gey, birdie, ea­gle, I mean, I’m pretty chill any­way.”

Hence, the no­tion that the gifted Koepka, from a long line of fine ath­letes, in­clud­ing a great un­cle (Dick Groat) who was Na­tional League MVP, was some sort of Big Chill of the PGA Tour. An emo­tion­less flat-liner, a good friend and work­out part­ner of stoic world No. 1 player Dustin John­son, man of few syl­la­bles, much less words. Koepka even said that John-

son had called him with en­cour­age­ment Satur­day night. “It was a long phone call,” he said. “For us, it was like two min­utes.”

But about an hour af­ter his fi­nal putt, as the size of his ac­com­plish­ment sank in and ev­ery­thing it meant be­gan to dig into Koepka, he con­ducted a re­mark­able long mass in­ter­view in which he opened up so much, was so frank and in­ter­est­ing, that the Man of No Emo­tion who won the U.S. Open was re­placed by a vastly more in­ter­est­ing per­son — that is to say, the real Koepka.

“It’s taken me a long time to learn how to not try to win. I’ve been try­ing to win too badly. I feel like I’ve un­der­achieved,” Koepka said of his four years on the PGA Tour af­ter spend­ing three years play­ing tours around the world. “I put my­self in con­tention so many times, but I never quite came through. I’m not a big fan of los­ing.

“I just couldn’t stand the fact that I had only won once” on Tour, he said.

So the Koepka who, in a golf cart leav­ing the last green, put his hands over his face, pulled his hat over his eyes and seemed to melt with re­lief is a more ac­cu­rate pic­ture of the golf cham­pion of Amer­ica.

This past week, Koepka said, “I don’t think I ever got ner­vous. I just stayed in the mo­ment. . . . I didn’t think about hug­ging the tro­phy. . . . You’re here to play golf for 18 holes. . . . I don’t think I men­tioned ‘win­ning’ to my cad­die all week.”

To say that this ver­sion of the golf­ing Koepka is new is a grand un­der­state­ment. This guy is so freshly minted he may still be hot from the smelt.

Speak­ing of an early-sea­son slump this year, Koepka said, “I was grind­ing all day ev­ery day, in the gym ev­ery day. I just couldn’t get my mind to free up. But I’m past that now.”

The golf life is per­haps not some­thing you would wish on a friend. The dif­fer­ence be­tween “be­ing in the mo­ment” for four days, never hav­ing that “frac­tion of a sec­ond slip in fo­cus” that leads to a dou­ble bo­gey is sep­a­rated from a state of mind­clamp, of near golf des­per­a­tion by a men­tal mem­brane so slim and frag­ile that golfers don’t even want to think about it. In­stead, they say things like, “I’m past that now.” Un­til the next time they aren’t.

As re­cently as 2014, Koepka said he called his man­ager be­fore the fi­nal day of a Euro­pean event (which he ended up win­ning) and said, “I don’t want to play. I want to go home.” Now, he says, “I don’t even know what it was. I’d played so many weeks in a row. It re­ally got to me is all I can say.”

So let’s hold the talk about be­ing “chill.” That’s an emo­tional state that young golfers bat­tle to reach, then main­tain pre­car­i­ously. That why they cover their eyes, pull down their hats in mo­ments of glory as their girl­friends pat a shoul­der.

Right now, there may not be any sport in Amer­ica where you can be as good as Koepka — al­most ev­ery­one in golf thinks that the ex-Florida State star, ranked No. 22 in the world, is a ma­jor fig­ure of the game’s fu­ture — and yet have so many ge­nial, ob­sessed, tal­ented play­ers of your gen­er­a­tion, your own bud­dies, who are con­stantly try­ing to grind you to dust by their sheer num­bers. They’re the age that got full-blown “Tiger Slam” Eldrick Woods at their most im­pres­sion­able age.

If this Open il­lus­trated any gen­eral trend in golf, it is the depth of gifted play­ers who stand just be­low the megas­tar ranks of John­son, Ja­son Day, Rory McIl­roy and Jor­dan Spi­eth. This was their U.S. Open to step for­ward and demon­strate the broad sweep of 20-some­thing tal­ent that fills the game. The broad fair­ways here and enor­mous length (7,741 yards, long­est in a ma­jor cham­pi­onship) al­lowed them to show their power and raw if some­times not quite pol­ished gifts.

“I loved this course as soon as I saw it. It was kind of ‘ bombs away,’ ” said Koepka, who av­er­aged 322.1 yards off the tee, sev­enth long­est in the field.

Even though the 15-man leader board did not at any point Sun­day con­tain a player who had won a ma­jor ti­tle, the field still had a mind-bog­gling seven who fin­ished at 10 un­der par or lower. In the first 116 U.S. Opens, there had been two. In part, that is due to rain and soft scor­ing con­di­tions. In part, 11-year-old Erin Hills, even in stiff winds on the last day, prob­a­bly never played tough enough to have hosted an Open in the first place.

But mostly, the phe­nom­e­nal scores pointed to the wave of new stars, such as Koepka, who some­times ob­scure each other. For ex­am­ple, be­fore Koepka gave his post-round news con­fer­ence, he was in­tro­duced by a USGA of­fi­cial as “Bruce.”

We won’t be mix­ing these guys up much longer.

On Sun­day, young play­ers such as run­ner-up Hideki Mat­suyama, who shot a fi­nal-round 66, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas all had mo­ments in con­tention. They are 25, 28 and 24 years old and ranked Nos. 4, 9 and 13 in the world. Si Woo Kim, who lurked all week, is 21. Xan­der Schauf­fele, 23, may have started the week ranked No. 352, but he won’t be for long af­ter fin­ish­ing 10 un­der for fifth place.

“Those guys are go­ing to have amaz­ing ca­reers. The younger gen­er­a­tion that’s com­ing up right now, it’s re­ally im­pres­sive,” Koepka said. “So it’s get­ting that much harder to win ’em.”

Yet win ’em is ex­actly what Koepka says he in­tends to do. And un­like most play­ers af­ter a first ma­jor, he’s will­ing to say it. “My goals? They’re pretty high. At the be­gin­ning of this year, I felt I needed to win mul­ti­ple times and a ma­jor,” Koepka said. “I think I can win mul­ti­ple times a year. This is ma­jor No. 1 and hope­fully many more to come.”



Brooks Koepka ties Rory McIl­roy’s U.S. Open record of 16 un­der in rolling to a four-shot win at Erin Hills.

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