SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Brooks Koepka told anyone within earshot this week that no one was more confident than he was when the field of 156 arrived at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club for the 118th edition of the U.S. Open.
How confident do you think he is now?
Koepka became the seventh to win the national championship in back-to-back years with a final-round 2-under-par 68 Sunday to hold off Tommy Fleetwood by one shot. Koepka, who won his first major in the 2017 U.S. Open at wide-open Erin Hills in Wisconsin, shot rounds of 75-66-72-68 to finish at 1 over.
“The U.S. Open just takes so much discipline,” said Koepka, who at one time was 7 over in the first round. “You have got to be a great putter and just kind of let things roll off your back. I enjoy the test. 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.”
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Fleetwood, who played with Koepka in the final round at Erin Hills and finished in a tie for fourth, came rushing home with a 63. He missed a 9-footer for birdie on the last hole, keeping him from becoming the first to shoot 62 in U.S. Open history. Instead, he became the sixth to shoot 63.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who led by four shots after 36 holes, three-putted six times on the weekend — he missed three putts inside four feet Sunday — and fell back to third place at 3 over with a 70. Masters champion Patrick Reed grabbed a share of the lead with five birdies in his first seven holes but couldn’t sustain his charge and finished fourth at 4 over with a 68.
Koepka, 28, who joined Curtis Strange (1988-89) and Ben Hogan (1950-51) as the only players to win consecutive Opens since the end of WWII, was on point with all facets of his game, tapping into his mental state, eye-opening power and imperative short game with equal reward.
One of four players to share the 54-hole lead, Koepka broke from the pack with three birdies in his first five holes and added a crucial 4-footer for birdie on the 16th to keep his rivals at bay. Just as important for Koepka, who never gave up the outright lead after the ninth hole, were par saves from six feet on 12 and 8 feet on 14 and a bogey save from 15 feet on 11, when he was hoping to take a double-bogey 5 on the par-3 hole.
“That was like making a birdie, maybe even making an eagle, it felt like, because it could have been a big momentum shift there,” he said.
Throughout the week, Koepka walked as if he had momentum on his side all the time. His conviction didn’t waiver after an opening-round 75, didn’t tremble during a brutal test of survival in the third round when grueling Shinnecock, high winds and quick greens shook most everyone else. His left wrist, which he dislocated twice earlier this year, was of no concern, and he didn’t cower from his final-round pairing with Johnson, his fellow Bash Brother and workout mate.
Koepka has now won 10 times around the world, three of them coming on the PGA Tour, and will move up from his current rank of No. 9 in the world. The former Florida State All-American took an adventurous route to becoming one of the game’s best players, traveling the world on the European Tour and its developmental circuit.
Never one to back down from a challenge and never shy of the unknown, he grew as a man and his game took major strides as he visited many lands, from Kenya to Kazakhstan, from Spain to Scotland, from South Africa to Shanghai.
He said he gained a cache of confidence as he tackled currency demands, time zone changes, dining challenges and every golf course condition imaginable.
Thus, he didn’t sweat his wrist injury that knocked him out of action for nearly four months this year. He spent much of his time on the couch with a soft cast up to his elbow. The time off was so long he forgot where he left his golf clubs, but once he located them, he quickly returned to form.
While his wrist wasn’t 100% and he reinjured it again in The Players Championship, he played through the pain and tied for 11th in The Players and was second in the Fort Worth Invitational, his two best finishes leading into the U.S. Open.
And he didn’t sweat historic, long Shinnecock. Just as Erin Hills was last year, the course seemed ideal for Koepka, whether it was playable or not. It was playable Sunday after the USGA, which admitted it had erred in setting up the course for the third round and conditions conspired to create an unfair test late in the day, said it applied “appropriate levels of water” to slow down the greens. The USGA also adjusted some of the pin locations, locating 11 in the middle of the putting surfaces.
Saturday eight players didn’t break 80; on Sunday, only three didn’t break 80. Saturday three players broke 70; on Sunday, 15 players broke 70. No one was on the defensive in the final round, especially Koepka.
“I don’t want to say I didn’t think I could do it, but I knew that it was going to be that much more difficult, and to finally do it, it’s much more gratifying the second time,” Koepka said. “I can really appreciate how hard it is to win a major, and to win back to back is special.
“Hopefully, there is or there will be a few more.”