The U.S Open lost its way again at Shinnecock Hills, but we ended up in the place we were supposed to be. This is now a tradition of America’s national championship. The car blew a tire, shattered a windshield, lost all of its mirrors, and is out of gas. The navigation service went out in the middle of the trip. But the busted rig pulled into the correct destination and completed the trip. We may need a new car, or at least a new navigator, but we got where we were supposed to.
Brooks Koepka was the best player in the field this week. He might be at the start of becoming the best U.S. Open player for an entire generation, with a game that’s fit to dominate the national championship. He’s the first to win back-to-back U.S. Opens since 1988-89.
Koepka’s talents are so often reduced to power. It’s the easy first line to say. He’s in some Nike blade collar shirt with his biceps bursting out of the sleeves. He is quick to say he considers himself an athlete more than a golfer and will offer up his workout regimen with little prompting. He prefers watching other sports, like football and baseball, and doesn’t even really like watching golf. So it’s not wrong to just immediately go to the power, and presume this is nothing more than a guy who mashes the ball to win golf tournaments.
The U.S. Open, however, takes more than just a masher and that’s why it’s so different from so many PGA Tour stops, which are set up to benefit the bomb-and-gouge style of the modern pro golfer. This week’s setup had its issues. This is obvious now. There were mistakes made in both directions, with the typical USGA missteps of crossing the line of toughness and then overcorrecting to present too benign a setup for the final round. Golf Channel’s David Duval said Sunday night that the USGA only got one of the four days right.
Putting the USGA conditioning mistakes aside, Shinnecock Hills was still a test where the best golfer would have to play more than just some bombing style. Koepka did that and he did it playing in the toughest conditions and toughest setups, not sidling to a trophy by scoring when the course was at its easiest. He won less with his driver and more with his ballstriking and putting. He was first in the field in “strokes gained approach.” If you’re a golf purist, mad about more USGA bumbling at one of golf’s most important events, this is what you should want.
Getting the best ballstriker at a classic course, one of the best in the world and arguably the best major venue, is the correct result. Koepka was also 10th in strokes gained putting. He was simply the best all-around player at one of the best tests for this championship, even if the plot was lost on setup and course conditioning.
So it’s obvious that Koepka is more than just a yoked bomber. The numbers prove it and Sunday’s most critical moment proved it. The 11th hole at Shinnecock Hills is a delightful par-3 to watch and look at but torturing to play. Lee Trevino called it the “shortest par-5 in the world” and it was measured at just 159 yards for the final round.
This was a pitching wedge up the hill for Koepka, but the adrenaline, some wind, whatever, resulted in his ball bounding over the back of this small green. It didn’t just roll out into a shaved down green surround, but actually went all the way into the thickest junk way beyond the green. It was an impossible spot. Fox’s reporter walking with the group, the last player to go back-to-back in the U.S. Open, Curtis Strange, actually struggled for words to describe the challenge ahead. Koepka was dead, and after the round, he said he was hoping for a double bogey.
Koepka hacked out, the ball shot through the green and into one of the bunkers in front, where several players had their entire championship derailed. Jordan Spieth made triple bogey from there on Thursday morning. Koepka was now starting there in two. He got up-and-down from the sand for a bogey, the same number playing partner Dustin Johnson put on the card after putting his ball on the green. Koepka started in an impossible position and figured out how to make a good bogey, a great bogey, maybe the best bogey you will ever see.
Sometimes watching the three-point contest is way more fun and exciting than watching the power of the dunk contest. I posted up on the 11th hole for a couple hours on Saturday marveling at its brilliance. Watching players attack that par-3 was more exciting than watching them hit 360-yard drives. Driving distances get all the publicity, and hitting it a long way is absolutely an advantage. Being tall is an advantage in basketball, but three-point shooting has become the commodity everyone wants. We may be entering (or have been there) an era where everyone can bomb it and ballstriking is the biggest differentiator.
Koepka has all of the above and he showed it to win the “ultimate test” in the game. It’s more than just power. It’s proper strategy, execution, touch, and skill and Koepka had all of that throughout the week. The bogey at the 11th was just a sample of a day full of perfect darts into greens, par saves from around the green, and steady putting that never relinquished the lead on the back nine.
It’s surprising that Koepka got to two majors before DJ. I’m still processing that a bit. You can throw in Jason Day, Justin Rose, Shaun Micheel and other one-time major winners that Koepka has surprisingly raced ahead of with back-to-back U.S. Open titles. But it’s clear he has the full game and talent to win many majors. He’s got only one regular old PGA Tour win, but he shows up at his best for the majors and is almost always contending. Winning at a place like Shinnecock also proves he didn’t just “steal one” at an nontraditional U.S. Open venue last year.
Koepka was the right champion, just as he was last year and just as Dustin Johnson was the year before and Jordan Spieth the year before that. Those U.S. Opens were full of course setup and rules mistakes. The car eventually got there, but it rolled in an unusable mess and made you think we need a new driver. The result doesn’t justify a trip spent riding with two wheels off a cliff or crashing into guardrails, but there’s solace in at least getting to the finish. They were not examples of properly run major championships, but we got the proper winner. We got the top ranked strokes gained approach player winning at a flawless venue that was mishandled by the USGA. Maybe this is the perfect distillation of the modern U.S. Open identity.