Koepka Gets a Keeper

  • Brooks Koepka poses with the winning trophy after the U.S. Open golf tournament Sunday, June 18, 2017, at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

  • Brooks Koepka lines up a putt on the 16th hole during the fourth round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Sunday, June 18, 2017, at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Brooks Koepka walks to the 15th tee during the fourth round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Sunday, June 18, 2017, at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Brooks Koepka hits on the 18th hole during the fourth round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Sunday, June 18, 2017, at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The Washington Post
Monday, June 19, 2017

Erin, Wis. — Brooks Koepka, a strapping Floridian with wowing golf talent, a cool disposition, an athlete’s cocksure gait and a two-year place at the fringe of the bright lights, surged from that fringe on a blustery Sunday at Erin Hills.

He became both a 27-year-old U.S. Open champion and the latest of golf’s enviably young headliners. He did it by using an unusual amount of oomph to separate from an unusually crowded crowd.

When he approached No. 14 with a wee one-shot lead and a budding legacy (one top-level European Tour win in Turkey, one win on the PGA Tour, in Phoenix, in 2015), he stood far from closing with a 67, a four-shot win, a rampaging total of 272 and a U.S. Open record-tying score against par of 16 under. It was far from certain he would win a U.S. Open only three years after riding a fourth place in a U.S. Open, at Pinehurst in North Carolina in 2014, to his PGA Tour card. He proved such a trembling mess that he birdied No. 14, birdied No. 15, birdied No. 16 and sprinted from the others.

The others included recent Wells Fargo winner Brian Harman, who led Koepka by one as Sunday began and spent the back nine anywhere from 13 under to 11 under before settling at 12 under. They included Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, the world’s fourth-ranked player, who went out eight groups from the last and bolted up the board with a shiny 66 that left him 12 under. And they included major greenhorn Tommy Fleetwood, an Englishman who had played seven previous majors and missed six cuts but who thrived to 11 under here after shooting a closing 72.

Others who had cause for big hope wound up failing to menace even as they succeeded at good golf. Rickie Fowler, the 28-year-old frequent major contender who hinted at the softness of the first-time U.S. Open course way back on Thursday when he went out to a 65, began the day at 10 under but shot par 72, which couldn’t help in this rare birdie festival.

Justin Thomas, the 24-year-old who shot 63 on Saturday for the best score against par (9 under) in the 117 U.S. Opens and began one shot from the lead, wobbled from the get-go and shot 75 on Sunday. A day after making nine birdies and an eagle, he made one birdie.

Si Woo Kim, the 21-year-old Players Championship winner who began a compelling three shots off the lead, shot 75 and finished at a commendable 6 under par.

Just when it seemed as if those remaining at the top might arm-wrestle for it, Koepka rose and suspense sank. By the time he parred the par-5 giant No. 18 with a two-footer, tied Rory McIlroy’s 16-under record from Congressional in 2011 and fist-pumped understatedly a few times, he had cast himself as a top-tier threat.

“To be honest, he was just so in control,” said his caddie, Ricky Elliott. “He just dead-lined all day.”

It was a champion’s posture just three years into the heavy mix for a player who came to it on an unconventional path. Having missed out at PGA Tour qualifying school in 2012, he went to Europe, where he quickly won three times on the European Challenge Tour, the continent’s second tier. Just three years after the Pinehurst breakthrough, he ranked three birdies sure to become famous behind one par he found to be reassuring. He had three-putted No. 10 for his lone three-putt of the week and his lone back-nine bogey, and he felt he had putted poorly on No. 11, by the time he left himself quite a 12-foot challenge when he landed on 13.

“To be honest with you, it really was the putt, the par save on 13,” Koepka said. “I think that built some confidence. ... So I think that was kind of the changing point of the round for me.”

What followed left others stung but also impressed. Harman said, “I can’t take anything away from how well he played,” and, “You’ve got to tip your cap; he won the golf tournament on the back nine,” and, “If you’d have told me I was going to shoot 12 under in the U.S. Open and not win, I’d have taken that bet, that’s for sure.”

Then again, it had been an odd U.S. Open. Only two players in 116 previous editions — Tiger Woods in 2000 and McIlroy in 2011 — had finished under par in double digits. Seven did it here, but one did it by far the best, cementing a brisk run to the fore of the game.

Elliott, the caddie, a Northern Irishman and dual citizen of the United States and United Kingdom, recalled how only four years ago at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., at the PGA Championship, someone told him a young player needed a caddie who could ply both sides of the Atlantic. Elliott said he would give it a try. He became one of the many through the years to see Koepka and think straightaway, Elliott nodded, “This boy’s going to be good.”