For champ, com­fort beats pres­sure

Koepka cred­its Ry­der Cup ex­pe­ri­ence for last­ing to end

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Nancy Ar­mour nar­mour@us­ato­ USA TO­DAY Sports FOL­LOW COLUM­NIST NANCY AR­MOUR @nrar­mour for com­men­tary and in­sight on the lat­est in sports.

The back-to-back birdies to start the round were big. So, too, the shot out of the bunker on 14. And that birdie putt on 15 that kept ev­ery­one at bay? The def­i­ni­tion of clutch.

Truth is, though, Brooks Koepka won his first ma­jor back in Oc­to­ber.

If not for the crush­ing pres­sure of the Ry­der Cup, Koepka wouldn’t be the new U.S. Open cham­pion. Keep­ing your com­po­sure — and cush­ion of a lead — down the stretch will barely cause you to break a sweat af­ter you’ve sur­vived three days’ worth of jan­gling nerves and stom­ach in a con­stant state of free fall.

“The Ry­der Cup was the first real taste of true pres­sure I think I’ve ever felt,” he said af­ter his vic­tory Sun­day af­ter­noon at Erin Hills. “And to be hon­est with you, this week I don’t think I ever got ner­vous, not at one point. I just stayed in the mo­ment.”

In­deed, when he made his par putt on 18 to se­cure his four-stroke vic­tory, he gave only a small fist pump.

It wasn’t un­til sev­eral min­utes later, when he was in a golf cart head­ing back to scor­ing, that he buried his head in his hands, over­come with the enor­mity of both what he’d done and what he’d won.

“It’s prob­a­bly the most emo­tion I ever showed com­ing down the stretch,” Koepka said in to­tal se­ri­ous­ness. “It feels amaz­ing to get my name on this tro­phy with so many other great names. It’s truly an honor.”

Koepka is the sev­enth con­sec­u­tive first-timer to win a ma­jor, ex­tend­ing a run that started with Jason Day’s win at the 2015 PGA Cham­pi­onship. That the new­bie trend would con­tinue was all but a given; Ser­gio Gar­cia and Louis Oosthuizen were the only ma­jor win­ners to fin­ish in the top 25, and nei­ther was ever a fac­tor Sun­day.

To win a ma­jor takes tal­ent, of course. But ev­ery­one out here has tal­ent. What sets ma­jor cham­pi­ons apart is a steely re­solve, an abil­ity to block out the mo­ment and all it rep­re­sents, and will them­selves past any dis­trac­tions.

It sounds easy, but it is any­thing but when you’ve never done it be­fore.

“I don’t feel as though I lost a golf tour­na­ment,” said Brian Har­man, who fin­ished in a tie for sec­ond. “I think Brooks went out and won the tour­na­ment.”

Koepka’s 5-un­der-par 67 was the sec­ond-low­est round of the day. He made only one bo­gey. He missed only one green. His to­tal score of 16 un­der matched the U.S. Open record set by Rory McIl­roy in 2011.

Koepka had al­ready won on the PGA Tour, along with a hand­ful of vic­to­ries in Europe and Asia. But a ma­jor is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent beast. You are leav­ing a mark in his­tory, your name for­ever joined with Ben Ho­gan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nick­laus, Tiger Woods.

The mag­ni­tude of such a mo- ment can be over­whelm­ing. Look at Justin Thomas, who got flus­tered when a gust of wind on the No. 4 green blew his ball 4 feet back from the hole. He made bo­geys on con­sec­u­tive holes and was never a fac­tor again.

Har­man had not bo­geyed a hole on the back nine all week un­til he drove into a tan­gle of fes­cue on the 12th. He would miss his par putts on both 12 and 13, along with one on 18 that would have given him sole pos­ses­sion of sec­ond place.

Hideki Mat­suyama, Tommy Fleet­wood, Rickie Fowler, Charley Hoffman — each had his chance and each one fal­tered.

“I’ve never con­tended for a ma­jor be­fore. So when you get to Satur­day and Sun­day, you’ve got to see how you re­act and how you feel,” Fleet­wood said.

But Koepka al­ready knew how he’d feel be­cause of the Ry­der Cup.

It’s never easy to be a rookie at the Ry­der Cup, a fevered in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion. But even less so last year, as the Amer­i­cans tried to win the Cup back for the first time since 2008.

Koepka talked of be­ing so ner­vous he wor­ried about keep­ing his ball on the tee. Yet he ex­uded a calm swag­ger and wound up as one of the most pro­duc­tive Amer­i­cans.

He col­lected three points from four matches, in­clud­ing a 5 and 4 rout of Masters cham­pion Danny Wil­lett.

The con­fi­dence he drew from that, along with strong show­ings at the Bri­tish Open and PGA Cham­pi­onship, sep­a­rated him from the pack as much as his boom­ing drives and pre­ci­sion on the greens.

“It’s the ba­sic an­swer of just stay­ing one shot at a time,” Koepka said. “I was not think­ing about any­thing else out there. I wasn’t think­ing any­thing other than the shot I just had or was about to hit.

“One more good shot. One more good shot,” Koepka added. “And that was kind of all we talked about all week. It sounds pretty bor­ing, but it’s the truth.”

Koepka’s per­for­mance at the Ry­der Cup helped the Amer­i­cans win the cov­eted tro­phy. Eight months later, it helped him win one of his own.


Brooks Koepka hoists the tro­phy af­ter he tied the scor­ing mark in win­ning the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.

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