Even Brooks Koepka’s peers stopped and watched major championship golf’s most dominant player making a charge to win a third straight U.S. Open. Justin Thomas, who missed the cut and could have flown home Friday night, came out to watch from a temporary platform in the backyard of a Pebble Beach mansion. No. 2. Rickie Fowler, in the middle of playing a final round of a major championship, blended into a swath of press members ballooning out at the shared 17th and 4th tees as if to take his own reporter’s notes on how to win a major championship.
Koepka was getting it done and after a relatively flat Saturday, bringing Pebble Beach to life right at the start of his final round. Fans raced ahead up the rope line to try and get a view, the monosyllabic “Brooks!” shouts started to come in “Tiger!”-like waves, and the inside-the-ropes gaggle almost became unwieldy in number.
The volume and the pace and feeling of inevitability for that first hour of Koepka’s final round created an energy not felt all week at Pebble. Brooksy’s heater through those first five holes, on its own and in a vacuum, will be hard to forget. It had everything — brilliant recoveries, nuked drives, perfect wedges, silly bunker play, clutch putts, and perfect strategy through a stretch of the course that’s scoreable but mitigates his power. It forced him to play to different spots with precision.
There were four birdies in the manic opening five holes. The most impressive moment may have been his par, a stupid sand save that came from a 70-yard bunker shot that nearly went in the hole. Koepka started the week bristling about a Fox promo that did not include him, the two-time defending champion, and saying someone should be fired over it. There was some question about if the promo 1) is two years old or 2) exists at all. Fox did feature him in three of their four promos this year, including one solely dedicated to his pursuit of a third straight championship. The fourth one was dedicated to Tiger Woods. The reality did not matter because Koepka builds up these slights to motivate himself. He wants to feel like he’s overlooked or that no one cares or appreciates what he’s done.
There were no slights in Sunday’s final round and on the contrary, he felt like the only golfer on the planet for an hour. Every roar was for him. Top-10 talents like Fowler and Thomas had to watch. Fans kept abandoning plans to go see the course or other competitors because they had to stay with Koepka and keep watching this. So what we got was a concentrated mass of fans and media all there to marvel at Koepka. He had what he allegedly wanted. He was the show, the most important person on the property, and torching Pebble to his third straight U.S. Open and fifth major championship in nine starts.
The Koepka birdie frenzy made you forget there was one more group behind him. Given the start, you just assumed Koepka had raced in front or at the worst pulled even as he walked to the sixth hole. But Gary Woodland, who slept on the lead the both the 36-hole and 54-hole marks, added two birdies of his own in the first three holes. It was actually stunning to hear Woodland was two shots up on Koepka because that early run had consumed the final round and made it feel like this was another inexorable march to a major.
This reminder snapping you back to the actual reality of the leaderboard would become the theme throughout the back nine. Koepka did not make a birdie after the 11th hole. He did not play poorly by any stretch, but he was not perfect and that’s what he needed given the way Woodland closed.
Koepka owned the first hour and Woodland owned the rest. The feeling that the four-time major winner moving closer would push the zero-time major winner to give it away never materialized. Instead, it was Koepka who said multiple times after the round that there was simply “Nothing I could do.”
That’s the resignation that comes when you have someone in front that can get home in two from 265 yards uphill at the tough 14th hole and can also delicately chip a perfect ball from the putting green at the 17th. Woodland did not always have all the skills, but he does now and you don’t win a U.S. Open unless it’s all working. After the chip at 17, his caddie chased down a Fox camera operator to confirm where they stood and that Koepka made a par up ahead on 18. Knowing he had some cushion, the pigeonholed power hitter played a steady 4-iron, 5-iron, 8-iron up the par-5 finisher that took the little hazard known as the Pacific Ocean out of play. The conservative play still yielded a birdie because he’s not just all power.
Woodland has been described as a “Koepka light” but that’s a facile description based on a quick scan of their physical looks. Woodland is 35 years old, a self-proclaimed “late bloomer” who was a college basketball player first before becoming a world-class golfer. He’s the kind of talent that makes up so much of the PGA Tour — the rank-and-file section beyond the 10 or so players that get 95 percent of the coverage. He’s a person with an affecting story of loss off the course and perseverance on the course as that late-bloomer once considered to be nothing but a pure power player. He’s a person beloved by his peers and completely capable of winning a major, any major.
Woodland was the best player at this proper major championship test. It’s evidenced by the fact of how he separated himself from the rest of the field, aside from Koepka. The USGA “got it right,” whatever that means. We should not be rendering all-encompassing judgments on a major championship unless there is truly some monumental screw-up that makes the championship a farce. The USGA, however, operates in a world where each U.S. Open is now given a Commodus “live-or-die” judgment from the players’ locker room and the press tent.
A major is a four-day cruise liner and occasionally someone is going to throw-up on themselves or fall overboard. It’s a massive operation over a full week and mistakes will be made. At the U.S. Open, those mistakes are amplified, even if they’re not the fault of the USGA. The USGA had minimal control over a blimp crashing in a field near the 2017 U.S. Open but it somehow became part of a narrative that this major had become a traveling circus of mismanagement and catastrophes. Mistakes happen at other majors (maybe not as much at the Masters) but they rarely define entire championships like they do at the U.S. Open.
We had no such screw-ups that could be amplified this year. This was not the incredible story of Tiger winning the Masters but it was a flawless U.S. Open. Sunday was a smooth finish to a smooth week. We got the most dominant modern U.S. Open talent playing perfect golf to have the grounds thinking they were watching a third straight. That was only one hour of a 72-hole championship and while Koepka gave the final round juice, Woodland was the right talent and champion.