ST. LOUIS – The Tiger Babies – the next generation of stars who grew up idolizing and emulating their boyhood hero – finally got their shot at the king Sunday at the PGA Championship.
No surprise, it was Brooks Koepka who stepped up to the challenge.
With Bellerive Country Club rocking, with the sunburned and delirious fans sprinting down the hills just to catch a glimpse of Woods’ improbable surge at major No. 15, Koepka played some of the most unflinching, unapologetic and uncompromising golf of his career.
In front of the largest crowds he’d ever seen, Koepka made five birdies over his last 13 holes, quieting the pro-Tiger crowd, finishing with a tournament-record total and taking the PGA by two shots over Woods in the type of macho performance that has come to define his ascendant career.
“How many guys will ever get to say that they went head to head with Tiger in a major?” said Claude Harmon III, Koepka’s swing coach. “I think he was very excited about that opportunity today, and it’s something that he wanted to have happen. I think it defines your career to be able to say that you’ve gone toe to toe with Tiger, and that’s as close as anyone has come in a very long time.”
For a player whose team routinely gripes about his lack of media exposure, there’s no hiding Koepka now – his name at the top of the leaderboard.
Squarely in the prime of his career, Koepka has three major titles in his last six Grand Slam appearances, making him a shoe-in, already, at age 28, for the Hall of Fame.
He’s the fourth player to win the U.S. Open and PGA in the same season, joining an illustrious group all known by just one name: Sarazen. Nicklaus. Woods.
It’s rarefied air, especially for a player with just a single PGA Tour victory.
“He comes to these things with something to prove,” Harmon said, “because he wants to prove to everybody that he’s a great player.”
On the PGA’s centenary, Koepka offered a preview of what’s to come in the next 100 years – a smash-mouth style played by a 6-foot, 215-pound, swaggering jock who reps out 225 pounds as many times as the free-safety prospects at the NFL combine.
That aggressive brand of golf should whip the masses into a frenzy. After all, even non-golf fans can’t wait to line up behind Dustin Johnson and watch as he winds up and screams one into the stratosphere. Johnson shows all of the emotion of the Queen’s Guard, yet he’s undeniably one of the most popular players on Tour. Koepka doesn’t have that crossover appeal – he barely cracks the top 5 most popular athletes sponsored by Nike – and it’s not immediately clear why.
It’s almost as if fans, and the golf world in general, view him the same way he seemingly regards the sport – with casual interest. In interviews he’s often mentioned how he’s not a golf nerd, how he doesn’t watch golf on TV when he’s not playing, and how he’s only interested in collecting trophies. Koepka seeks none of the attention that comes with being one of golf’s boy kings – one of his favorite words is “chill” – but craves the recognition for what he’s accomplished. That creates a conflict.
“I don’t know why that is, because he deserves all the credit in the world,” said 19-year Tour veteran Charles Howell III. “You look at the guy and he’s built like Adonis. The ground shakes when he hits his driver. He putts it good. He’s got a great way about him, where he doesn’t get rattled by anything. If that feeling does exist, it’s going to change here pretty quickly.”
Even if Koepka hopes it doesn’t, because he’s made his entire career proving the doubters wrong.
As a junior standout, he was miffed at not being recruited by Florida. Once he’d already committed to rival Florida State, the Gators’ then-coach, Buddy Alexander, sidled up on the range at the U.S. Junior to watch Koepka smack balls. “I told him to remember that,” his father, Bob, said. “Because he was watching Brooks and he recruited other kids that he beat all the time. Every time he played the Gators, he wanted to kick their butts – to show them that they made a mistake in not recruiting him.”
Four years later, once Koepka blossomed into a three-time first-team All-American at Florida State, a handful of agencies made a presentation in head coach Trey Jones’ office. Most agents offered more money or other opportunities, but no guaranteed tournaments. Too risky, they said. Koepka ended up choosing the only company that told him they could line up some starts on the Challenge Tour.
“He wanted to bet on himself again,” Jones said. “Everything he’s done, he’s put it on himself.”
Koepka continued to seek out chips to throw onto his chiseled shoulders once he got to the pros.
After bombing out of Q-School here in the States, he packed his bags and climbed the ladder in Europe. He became a prolific winner and secured his PGA Tour card.
Once he arrived as a top-50 player, his coaches knew just the buttons to push. In one of the practice rounds before the 2017 U.S. Open, his short-game coach, Pete Cowen, began laying into him – how he was no good, how he would never win a major. It was just the pep talk Koepka needed. By the end of the week, he had tied a tournament scoring record.
“Anytime anybody tells me I can’t do something,” he said, “I just can’t wait to prove you wrong.”
Yet even that U.S. Open title drew skepticism, as if it was his fault the wind died and Erin Hills had no defense. Nevertheless, he backed it up this year at Shinnecock Hills, but not before he noticed that his name was left off the notables page on one of the early-round leaderboards.
“He doesn’t do it outwardly,” Bob Koepka said, “but he uses it as energy and fuel internally to motivate himself. The best way to quiet somebody down is to beat him. You don’t have to tell them you’re good. Beat them over and over, and they’ll tell everyone else that you’re good.”
Which culminated with this tour de force at the PGA, where Koepka stared down Woods and the best major leaderboard of the year.
Last week at Firestone, Koepka said he hit the ball better than he has in months – better even than in his two Open victories – but putted like he was blindfolded. He finished fifth, but his ball-striking imbued him with confidence, so much so that he said he would have given himself 10-1 odds to win this week, against the strongest field in major golf. (Vegas was slightly less bullish, at 20-1.)
Even after discovering a crack in his old model, Koepka was licking his chops at Bellerive. Traditionally, the parkland-style course has favored right-to-left hitters, because 13 of the holes sweep in that direction. But Koepka didn’t bother playing the shots that architect Robert Trent Jones envisioned. Instead, he aimed down the left side and hammered a cut over the dogleg.
“The way the game is played right now, he’s going to continue to have opportunities, unless they change the rules of the sport,” Harmon said. “He’s just starting to scratch the surface of his ceiling. He can just do things others can’t.”
That still didn’t stop Koepka and his team from searching long and hard for a few signs of disrespect.
After an opening 69 that left him in 32nd place, there were no media members waiting for Koepka in the scoring area. Fuming the next morning, he told Harmon: “I bet they’re going to interview me this afternoon after I go out and shoot a low number.” Sure enough, he tied a PGA record with a 63.
With time to kill before the third round, he hit a local Life Time Fitness with Johnson. Employees and visitors all wanted to snap photos of the hulking world No. 1; Koepka sat there, unnoticed and unamused.
In the final round, only one journalist followed Koepka for all 18 holes, while there were dozens who walked every step with Woods. Harmon also noted how TV cameras tracked Woods’ every movement and often went 10 minutes without showing a shot from the last group. Sitting in the locker room, both Harmon and Adam Scott’s manager followed the final round on ShotLink, because at least that was in real time.
Of course, inside the ropes, Koepka had little trouble following along with what Woods was doing. All he needed to do was listen.
The roars reverberated all around Bellerive.
“I think other than me and my team, everybody was rooting for Tiger,” Koepka said. “And they should.”
The pandemonium unfolding around him only further stoked his competitive fire.
“It pushes you to step up your game,” he said. “You have to, because you know he’s right there if you fall.”
After dropping into a share of the lead early, Koepka ripped off three birdies in a row to close out the front nine.
With Woods charging, and the gallery openly rooting for his opponent, Koepka again proved he’s a stone-cold killer: He rolled in a 10-footer on 15 and then hit a 247-yard laser – “probably one of the best shots I’ve ever hit under pressure” – to 6 feet on 16 to move two shots clear and end any hopes of Woods’ drought-busting major.
Volunteers hung a red 16 next to Koepka’s name on the leaderboard near the 17th green, and the fans packing the grandstands groaned.
It was over.
Koepka finished with a 66 for a total of 16-under 264, matching the all-time PGA scoring mark and tying the lowest 72-hole score in major history.
“He’s something special, the way he played,” Harmon said. “To have a battle with one of the greatest players of all time, it just shows how strong he is mentally, and how good his game is, to hit the shots he hit down the stretch. He’s a hell of a player.”
But he’s still a player whom fans have yet to fully embrace, and so the ending Sunday was fitting. Koepka has shunned the spotlight at almost every opportunity, declining the post-major media tours and even turning down the chance to celebrate during halftime of a Florida State football game. It’s not his style. So it was little surprise to see that he didn’t bother marking his 8-inch putt on the final green. With his coin in his playing partner’s view, he decided to finish it off, even as the crowd implored him to wait.
The doubters silenced, for now, Koepka apparently didn’t need it – the roars, the adulation, the signature moment for his highlight reel.
No, he’d rather just take the trophy instead.