Two birdies in his last three holes revived Brooks Koepka’s hopes for a historic three-peat at the PGA Championship.
After his third-round 69, he briefly scanned the leaderboard and liked what he saw.
“A lot of guys on the leaderboard I don’t think have won (a major) or ...” he said, before pausing. “I guess DJ has only won one. I don’t know the other guys that are up there.”
Nor was Koepka all that interested in learning more about his competition. He knew where he stood – in a tie for fourth, two shots back of Dustin Johnson at TPC Harding Park – and that’s exactly where he hoped to be 18 holes away from becoming the first player since Peter Thomson in the mid-1950s to win the same major in three consecutive years.
That he singled out Johnson in particular was noteworthy. For years they were cast as South Florida bash brothers and workout buddies who helped push each other to new heights, but last month, in an interview with Golfweek, Koepka denied they were as close as the media narrative suggested. “That got blown out of proportion because we worked out in the same gym,” he said in the interview. “We no longer do that. All of last year at least we weren’t working out together. I’ve got all the friends I need.”
Though Johnson is a 21-time PGA Tour winner, he’s come up short in the career-defining tournaments, winning only one major (2016 U.S. Open) and kicking away several others. Overall, he has closed out just eight of his 17 career 54-hole leads, and he’s 0-for-3 when holding at least a share of the lead heading into the final round of a major. Koepka is well aware of that shaky Sunday history, and when he was asked whether it was more difficult to win a second major than the first, he said: “Well, if you look at the top of the leaderboard, I’d say yes.”
Indeed, Koepka owns more major titles (four) than the top 19 players on the leaderboard combined (three).
This year’s PGA is a role reversal from last year’s championship at Bethpage Black, when Koepka nearly squandered a large final-round lead as Johnson stormed into the mix. Despite playing in front of a largely pro-DJ crowd, Koepka steadied himself down the stretch and won by two. This year, he’s trying to chase Johnson.
“I’m playing good,” he said, “so I like my chances.”
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There was reason for Koepka’s increased confidence, after a scintillating end to his third round. He had jumped into a share of the lead at 8 under par before he made three consecutive bogeys midway through the back nine. During that stretch he said he made only one poor swing – on 13, when he launched his approach over the green – but dropped four shots back of Johnson, who shot 65.
Rather than drift further out of contention, Koepka nearly drove the green on 16 and made birdie. Then, on the home hole, after pounding a 327-yard drive, he stuffed his approach to 5 feet to move into the third-to-last pairing, just two shots behind Johnson.
“When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized,” he said. “I don’t know, he’s only won one. I’m playing good. We’ll see.”