PITTSFORD, N.Y. – After his man shot a second-round 66 to book a must-see pairing with his one-time archnemesis Bryson DeChambeau, swing coach Claude Harmon III described the current version of Brooks Koepka as 2.0.
After an equally impressive 66 on a sodden Saturday, Koepka looked more like version 1.0.
You remember that Brooks? The guy who once rankled an entire field when he reckoned there were about a dozen players who he had what it took to beat him. The guy who angered the entire PGA Tour when he dismissed the rank-and-file events for the Grand Slam starts, which he figured were all that mattered. The guy who collected four Grand Slam titles in less than 2 ½ years.
On Saturday at Oak Hill, the only thing that was missing was the misplaced bravado, which has largely been replaced by a more humanized version who has been humbled by injury and poor play.
He pulled within a stroke of the lead with back-to-back birdies at Nos. 4 and 5, added two more at Nos. 12 and 13 and he walked off with the ultimate flex, a 46-footer for a birdie at the 17th hole.
During another time, it would have been worth noting that he beat DeChambeau, who became his primary antagonist following an awkward dustup at the 2021 PGA Championship, by four strokes. Koepka didn’t care.
“I mean, I shot 4 under, so you tell me,” he shrugged when asked, “how the pairing went?”
The narrative has changed since Koepka won his last major, the 2019 PGA Championship. He’s endeared multiple injuries including two dislocated kneecaps, a torn labrum in his left hip and a jump to LIV Golf. What he hasn’t been since then is particularly relevant.
That changed at the Masters where he finished second to Jon Rahm and he continues to evolve at Oak Hill, where he’s gotten progressively better, which is to say more Brooks-like, since an opening 72. As much as his play last month at Augusta National proved he was still the same player who won four of eight majors, the subtext of his performance went beyond that.
“It proved to him that he wanted to be in that mix again,” Harmon said.
But as much as Brooks 2.0 is starting to look like the old model there’s a nagging tell heading into Sunday’s final turn at Oak Hill. The other guy would never have closed with a 75 at the Masters and lost to Rahm by four strokes after starting the final round with a two-stroke lead.
If there’s a modicum of hope for those chasing Koepka into the final round it’s that recent history and the lingering question – can he still be Brooks?
“Everyone misconstrues the confidence for just the injury. You ask any athlete if they are hurt, and they can't do something. I mean, imagine if you can't get out of bed or can't walk. You've got a pebble in your shoe, you kind of start to adjust, and that's the thing. I just got into bad habits,” Koepka explained. “You can't play. I came back too soon and played for too long.”
But now his health is back, and the game that elevated him to his generation’s most prolific major player, but the swagger is still missing.
That only comes with a trophy and the warm comfort that you’ve beaten 155 of the world’s best players.
It’s that notion that the likes of Viktor Hovland and Corey Conners, who are tied for second place and a stroke behind Koepka, can cling to. It’s the same name but it remains to be seen if this “Brooks” casts the same shadow.
If experience is any guide, DeChambeau, who will begin the final round three shots off the lead, is poised to continue to play the role of antagonist and world No. 2 Scottie Scheffler looms four back after an eventful third round.
“For me winning golf tournaments out here is difficult. There's a lot of talented players. I know what I need to do going into tomorrow. It's just a matter of executing,” said Scheffler, who rallied after a front-nine 39 with 1-under closing loop. “I feel like I've hung in there the last three days to give myself a chance going into Sunday.”
The would-be contenders also have the benefit of more benign conditions on Sunday. One of the more difficult major championship tests was supercharged on Day 3 by a cold rain that only made the course play more difficult, longer, colder. But “Soak Hill” will be replaced for the final round by temperatures in the 70s and sunshine, a perfect runway to decide a decidedly imperfect week.
Koepka is the runaway favorite and the last two days have set a familiar tone. Brooks 1.0 would have bullied the field into submission for his third PGA Championship victory but this version, Brooks 2.0, still has something to prove, something to learn about himself and where he stands in the game.