One year after Koepka overpowered the wide fairways of Erin Hills in a U.S. Open remembered for low scoring, he navigated his way through the brutal conditions of Shinnecock Hills and closed with a 2-under 68 to become the first repeat champion in 29 years.
Curtis Strange, the last player to go back-to-back in this major, watched the entire final round Sunday as the Fox Sports reporter on the ground, and they shared a brief hug off the 18th green after Koepkatapped in for bogey and a one-shot victory.
“Man, it feels good to hold this thing again,” Koepka said with the silver trophy in his arms.
His victory Sunday might not have been possible if not for grinding out a 72 on Saturday in conditions so severe the last 45 players to tee off in the third round didn’t break par. The USGA conceded the course was over the top and pledged to give it more water and slow it down.
Bogeys gave way to birdies, and no one took advantage like Tommy Fleetwood of England. He made eight birdies – none on the two par 5s – and missed an 8-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a 63, only the sixth player in U.S. Open history to go that low.
“Yeah, but I wanted a 62,” said Fleetwood, who finished one shot back and had to settle for the silver medal.
Fleetwood was one shot behind when he finished, and Koepka still had 11 holes to play as Shinnecock Hills began to get crisp under another sunny sky.
Koepka never lost the lead.
With a putting performance and calm demeanour reminiscent of Retief Goosen when he won the previous U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, in 2004, the 28-year-old Koepka began the back nine with three pivotal putts – one for birdie, one for bogey, one for par.
The biggest might have been his bogey on the nasty little par-3 11th.
Koepka pulled it to the left, down the slope and into thick grass. He chopped that up the slope with so much speed that it raced across the green and into the bunker. He blasted that out to 8 feet and made the putt to keep his lead at one shot.
“I think that was like making a birdie, maybe even making an eagle,” he said. “Because it could have been a big momentum shift there, and we could have been playing tennis just going back and forth. To make bogey there was pretty incredible and I think kind of the reason why we won.”
He wasn’t through. He hacked out of the hay over the green at No. 12, pitched beautifully to 7 feet and made the par. Two holes later, after another drive into grass so thick he wasn’t sure he could get it out, Koepka rolled in an 8-foot for another par save.
Koepka seized control with a wedge to 3 1/2 feet for birdie on the par-5 16th for a two-shot lead, and he never flinched until it no longer mattered. Koepka pulled his approach to the 18th off the grandstand, pitched on to about 12 feet and two-putted for a bogey.
He finished at 1-over 281, 13 shots higher than his winning score at Erin Hills last year. It was the first time since 2013 at Merion that no one broke par in the U.S. Open.
“I enjoy the test,” Koepka said. “I enjoy being pushed to the limit. Sometimes you feel like you are about to break mentally, but that’s what I enjoy. I enjoy hard golf courses. I enjoy playing about the toughest in golf you are ever going to play.”
That it was, starting on Thursday, and especially on Saturday.
Koepka opened with a 75, the highest first-round score by a U.S. Open champion since Raymond Floyd at Shinnecock Hills in 1986. He was 7 over for the championship through seven holes of the second round when he ran off six birdies for a 66 to get back in the game.
Dustin Johnson, part of the four-way tie for the lead to start the final round, couldn’t keep up with one of his best friends. Johnson was one shot behind at the turn until a trio of three-putt bogeys on the back nine. A birdie on the final home gave him an even-par 70 to finish alone in third and remain No. 1 in the world.
Koepka moved to a career-best No. 4 in the world ranking.
A year ago, Johnson called him on the eve of the final round to offer advice. On Sunday, they were playing side-by-side without exchanging words, each trying to play a course that was considerably softer than the previous day.
“We didn’t really speak too much,” Koepka said. “He was busy grinding his tail off and I was busy grinding mine. We’re extremely close. I love the guy to death. It would have been fun to dual it out with him coming down the end, having to make some putts.”
Only one of them did, which is why Koepka is the U.S. Open champion.
Americans have won the last five majors – all of them in their 20s – and Koepka joined an elite group as only the seventh player to go back-to-back in what is regarded as golf’s toughest test. Next up is Pebble Beach, and a chance to join Willie Anderson as the only player to win three in a row. Anderson won his third straight in 1905. Ben Hogan won three straight that he played, missing in 1949 after nearly getting killed when his car struck a bus.
Masters champion Patrick Reed flirted with the second leg of the Grand Slam. He was tied for the lead when he ran off five birdies in his opening seven holes. Reed spent too much time in the high grass on the back nine and closed with a 68 to finish fourth.