ST. LOUIS — The heat was too oppressive, and the course was oh so forgettable. Frankly, everything about this golf tournament in the St. Louis Cardinals’ backyard was supposed to be for the birds. Only good ol’ Midwestern hospitality could save this PGA Championship from itself, along with appreciative, single-day crowds that seemed big enough to fill Busch Stadium for a three-game series with the Chicago Cubs.
But then the golfing gods gifted this marathon Saturday out of left field and left us all with a Sunday at colorless and faceless Bellerive that could be the most memorable golf event of the year, and of many years to come. This isn’t about the leader, Brooks Koepka, as much as it is about the men in position to topple him, even though Koepka is a two-time U.S. Open champ who approaches the final rounds of majors the way John Wayne approached the swinging doors of Wild West saloons.
Tiger Woods has a chance to win this thing at age 42, more than 10 years after his 14th and last major title and only three weeks after he held The Open lead with eight holes to play. Rickie Fowler has a chance to win this thing at age 29, and to finally hand off the scarlet letters BPNTWAM (Best Player Never To Win A Major) to some other poor soul. Adam Scott, the former Masters champ with leading-man looks, is right there, and so is burgeoning star Jon Rahm, at 23 the most promising young Spaniard since Sergio Garcia. Former PGA champs Justin Thomas and Jason Day are only four behind Koepka, and one behind them is Open winner Francesco Molinari, who stared down Tiger in their Sunday pairing at Carnoustie.
If the PGA posted a marquee high above this final round to come, it might well read “Muscles and Mayhem.” In the lead at 12 under, Koepka is supplying the rolled-up sleeves and the kind of blacksmith arms that would’ve left Arnold Palmer‘s arms on the wrong side of a before-and-after ad. In fact, Koepka might be the only golfer on the planet capable of making Woods feel a bit self-conscious about the size of his own pipes.
Only 28, Koepka followed up his second-round 63, which tied a PGA Championship record, with a 4-under 66 that landed him 18 holes away from his third major. He has a chance to make history in the same town where his great uncle, an old shortstop named Dick Groat, helped the Cardinals beat the New York Yankees in the 1964 World Series. The locals have enjoyed watching Koepka hit the long ball. The slugger has what his father, Bob, calls “those steely eyes” when he prepares for a Sunday round in a major. After earning his keep the hard way on the minor league circuits overseas, he swaggers about with a chip on his shoulder the size of a beer keg.
Koepka likes to point out that he often feels like golf’s nowhere man. He has complained that he felt forgotten by players, fans and media while he recovered from the springtime wrist injury that knocked him out of the Masters (Koepka has mentioned more than once that only three peers — Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, and Dustin Johnson — bothered to text him), and he even used his 54-hole lead at Bellerive as an opportunity to tell the story of how he hit a local Life Time Fitness with DJ earlier Saturday.
“[On Saturday], I was in there with Dustin, and everybody wanted a picture with Dustin,” Koepka said. “They were talking about him as we left, and I was just standing there laughing. They were like, ‘Did you see that No. 1 player in the world was here? It’s like, ‘Yeah, OK.’ I don’t know what to say to that. It was like, ‘All right.'”
A crowd of reporters laughed at Koepka’s retelling, but it’s clear this is one golfer who doesn’t often find real or imagined slights funny.
“I can think of plenty of people along the way telling me I’ll be nothing,” he had said the other day, “working at McDonald’s, doing things like that. The whole time, you’re just trying to prove them wrong. You’re always trying to prove somebody wrong. Sometimes your haters, I guess, are your biggest motivators.”
Koepka blew out the U.S. Open field at Erin Hills last year with a record-tying finish of 16 under, this after his short-game coach got right up in his face on the range and told him, “You’re no good. You’re never going to win a major. You’re never going to win another golf tournament again.”
When people mocked Erin Hills as an unworthy U.S. Open test, Koepka answered them two months ago by acing what the USGA conceded was an unfair test at Shinnecock Hills, and he became the sport’s first back-to-back national champ since Curtis Strange three decades earlier. Koepka didn’t waste any time and energy complaining about the USGA. He just found a way to bury his friend, playing partner and the world’s top player, Johnson, and in doing so won the same tournament at 1 over that he won at 16 under the year before.
Now Koepka has to hold off a wide circle of PGA contenders that’s heavy on instant name recognition and, in Woods, that includes arguably the greatest golfer ever trying to write one of the game’s greatest tales.
“I feel like, if I do what I’m supposed to do,” Koepka said, “I should win the golf tournament. Yeah, there’s a lot of star power, and it should be. It’s a major championship. You should see the best players in the world come to the top.”
On cue, those players have ascended into a Sunday showdown that could make the 100th PGA Championship one for the ages. Woods is the most intriguing challenger, of course, because he has made remarkably fast progress in this comeback, and because he was four off the 54-hole lead at Carnoustie — just like he is at Bellerive — before he surged to the top of the board and flipped the sports world on its ear.
Tired and hungry, an old Tiger survived 29 holes Saturday. Can the Tiger of old show up Sunday, emerge from a crowd of star-studded hopefuls and knock that tough-guy look off Koepka’s face?
It looks like we’re all going to have a hell of a lot of fun finding out.