ERIN, Wis. – Luckily for the 117th U.S. Open, headlines don’t always tell the complete story.
In order, a balloon tumbled from the sky in a fiery ball on Thursday, then the next day officials announced an E. coli scare on property. It all kind of made one pine for the days when the most frightening thing at the championship was deep rough and a USGA official waiting for you with a rulebook on the 12th tee.
But for all the distractions at Erin Chills, all the social media scuffling over supercharged fescue and a golf course that could be stretched to 18 miles, it was a fresh wind from the northwest and the inspired play of Brooks Koepka on Sunday that turned what could have been a week to forget into something worth remembering.
After four days of wild lead changes and frenzied congestion, Koepka converted the clutch putts, took advantage of a rare U.S. Open venue with four par 5s and limited his misses, not posting a single score worse than bogey at what turned out to be an MIA Open for the missing marquee.
A week that began with no Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, marking the first time since 1994 at least one of the game’s leading men wasn’t in the field at a major, begat a weekend without world Nos. 1, 2 and 3 – Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, respectively – for the first time at a major.
While those titans may have been missed, it turns out they simply missed Koepka’s coronation, the completion of his transition from a calm and confident player with plenty of potential to a bona fide star who didn’t blink when the game’s most demanding test finally arrived on Day 4.
Even when Hideki Matsuyama made the long walk up the hill to the scoring area with the clubhouse lead at 12 under Koepka kept up appearances, which in his case would best be described as intense indifference. Or maybe aloof aplomb would be a better way to sum up the 27-year-old’s unique persona.
With Matsuyama setting the mark, Koepka answered by rolling in 32 feet of birdie putts at the 14th, 15th and 16th holes to move four clear of the field. He cruised home from there to a record-tying total in relation to par at 16 under and his first major title.
“This week I honestly don’t think I ever got nervous, I just stayed in the moment,” Koepka said with a signature shrug.
The Erin Hills Open may have been an extreme break from the norm, with 31 players finishing under par for the week, but to casual observers the final outcome probably looked vaguely familiar to last year’s event which was won by Dustin Johnson, a close friend of Koepka’s and something of his equal in the flat-liner department.
Johnson, who won last year with a similarly commanding performance at Oakmont, called Koepka on the eve of the final round to offer support and the two spent time together earlier this week playing practice rounds and doing whatever world-class athletes do when they aren’t winning.
“He’s always pretty flat line, I think that’s why people compare him to DJ and it’s why they get along so well. They are similar people, nothing fazes them and they’re pretty chilled out,” said Koepka’s swing coach, Claude Harmon III.
Beyond that calm exterior and limitless power, however, there’s a subtle if not substantial difference between Koepka and Johnson. Unlike the world No. 1, Koepka didn’t arrive on the PGA Tour with untold fanfare or enjoy immediate and unqualified success.
Instead, he forged a much different path, starting out on the European Challenge Tour, the Continent’s version of Triple A golf, before moving onto the European Tour.
He played tournaments in far-flung places like Kazakhstan and had to have extra pages put into his passport at one point because of his extensive travels. But most importantly he learned.
“He’s slept in his car, he’s done everything on the way up. He’s slept in a B&B with four of us and struggled along the way and that’s helped him appreciate where he is,” said Koepka’s caddie Ricky Elliott.
So when he began this year by missing four of his first six cuts, he didn’t panic, he didn’t try to find new answers or reinvent a wheel that has always run at an extremely high speed.
“It’s the Mike Tyson thing. It had been easy up until the beginning of this year for Brooks. But as Mike Tyson said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ All of a sudden golf’s not easy,” Harmon said. “He missed a bunch of cuts and I think it spurred him on. He bounced back and recovered from that. It was massive.”
Koepka’s victory was equally massive for a championship that seemed to lack an identity, initially as a result of the perceived missing star power and then as scoring reached record levels.
Rickie Fowler initially filled the star void, taking the first-round lead with a 65 and starting the final round just two strokes back, but he never managed to close the gap and finished with an even-par 72 to tie for fifth.
Brian Harman emerged on the weekend as a potential breakout player and for 63 holes a steady putter kept him in contention. But after crucial par putts at the sixth and ninth holes to keep pace with Koepka, Harman’s chances slowly devolved into a “dogs chasing cars” deal, with missed par attempts at the 12th and 13th holes. After going 25 holes without a bogey, he never recovered and tied for second place at 12 under par.
“If you would have told me I’d shoot 12 under at the U.S. Open and not win I’d have taken the bet for sure,” said Harman, who had made the cut in just two of his previous seven major starts.
What the leaderboard may have lacked in marquee, it made up for in variety. Four players shared the lead at the turn on Friday and that number ballooned to seven players midway through Round 3 before separation Sunday finally arrived.
The 117th edition may not have been the showstopper officials had been hoping for, but after taking a few shots to the chin in recent years the USGA’s experiment at Erin Hills was widely considered a success, qualified or otherwise.
“I think they did a fantastic job,” said Jordan Spieth, one of the few high-profile players to even make it to the weekend. “Chambers [Bay] was tough with the greens, and then last year had a tough Sunday. And I thought that the USGA did a phenomenal job this week of allowing the golf course to be what it is and play the way it's supposed to play. Not trying to do anything to hold any kind of standard. Instead, create an environment where if you play well, you can score, and if you don't, then it can go the other way.”
In many minds the Erin Hills Open was likely saved by Sunday’s breeze. After three days of record scoring that included Justin Thomas’ 9-under 63 – the lowest score in relation to par ever at the U.S. Open, which prompted the previous record holder Johnny Miller to compare the event with the Milwaukee Open – balance and a bite was returned to the golf universe on Day 4.
Sunday’s winds finally put the fear back in the golf, where it should be at the U.S. Open, and as is always the case the most fearless player emerged.