FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — On a sun-splashed afternoon, with boisterous New York fans strewn as far as the eye could see, there was an unmistakable pall hanging over Bethpage State Park.
One by one, contenders stepped to the first tee of the Black Course and encountered a two-fold problem with no easy solution. Of primary importance was the task at hand: tackling a beastly layout that offered little if any reprieve. Then the second factor kicked in: Try as they might, and with even the best of intentions, no one could stay within shouting distance of Brooks Koepka.
Koepka is one step closer to successfully defending his PGA Championship crown, having maintained the seven-shot lead with which he started the day. Even before he dispatched another dose of steady play, his presence on the towering electronic leaderboards lining the course served to remove the wind from the proverbial sails of his closest competitors.
Here I am, boys. Try to keep up.
“When you’re teeing off in the second-to-last group on Saturday, and you kind of — any birdie you make doesn’t really matter at that point. There’s nothing really motivating you to keep pushing forward,” said Adam Scott, who sits in a tie for eighth but trails Koepka by nine.
Koepka’s recent major dominance will inevitably draw comparisons to the accomplishments of Tiger Woods, and his performance this week bears a distinct resemblance to some of Woods’ greatest hits. Rarely does a major championship feel like a fait accompli before the leader passes the halfway mark, but Koepka left little doubt with his jaw-dropping performance over the first two days.
It left those in closest pursuit to feel a bit like the Washington Generals suiting up against the Harlem Globetrotters, and it zapped the event of any palpable buzz despite a setting designed to deliver exactly that.
“I don’t know if the tournament is less fun because I’m 15 shots back or whatever it is,” said Xander Schauffele, who actually trails by only nine heading into Sunday. “But it’s very melancholic after today, I’d say, just because every time I look up, I’m 10 or 12 back. So no one likes to play for second, but that’s sort of what he’s doing to us.”
A confluence of factors transformed the perception of Koepka’s advantage from significant to nearly insurmountable. First off, this is the guy that has waltzed to three major titles in the last two years nearly without breaking a sweat. His front-runner bona fides are not in dispute, nor is his confidence after he strode into the media center Tuesday to explain how easily majors are won before showing, exactly, how easily majors are won.
But the chase pack was done no favors by the PGA of America’s decision to toughen up the Black Course for the third round. Stretched to more than 7,400 yards and featuring a bevy of tucked pins, a layout that produced six scores of 65 or better over the first two days didn’t allow anyone to do better than 3-under 67.
With birdie opportunities few and far between, Koepka was able to play for par as the number of remaining holes dwindled away, knowing full well that those in pursuit were unlikely to dent his lead without a little help.
“Today wasn’t the day that it was going to offer up that number like the first couple days,” Scott said. “Brooks, to his credit, got off to an ideal start for a guy with a seven-shot lead. A couple birdies early, and he’s miles ahead.”
With Koepka more likely to miss his final-round tee time than to relinquish his touchdown advantage, the rest of the field is left to recalibrate accordingly. Many cited the world ranking points up for grabs, and Koepka won’t be the only one to leave Long Island with a seven-figure check.
But those are merely lucrative consolation prizes. Even in the eyes of those who still theoretically have a say in the matter, the possessor of the Wanamaker Trophy is no longer in doubt.
“I remember Monty saying no one was ever going to catch Tiger at that (1997) Masters that he won, and this is pretty much the same,” said Matt Wallace, who trails by eight, in a tie for sixth. “I’ll try and finish highest of the bunch that I’m around and see where that puts me.”
With just one round standing between him and another major title, not to mention a new chapter in the history books, Koepka didn’t rest on his laurels. Retaining the swagger with which he has comported himself all week, he declared that there was work yet to do.
“I’m definitely not going to let up, I promise you that,” Koepka said. “I enjoy the confidence I have and what I’m playing with right now.”
It all spells trouble for the remaining B-flight combatants, many of whom were licking their wounds while Koepka emerged from another trip around the Black Course with nary a scratch. Rather than devise a strategy to somehow get back into the mix, most are instead wondering if the PGA of America has any bylaws about a mercy rule.
“It’s a weird thing. This is a major championship, and everybody is here to win, but there’s only one guy who is absolutely just destroying this place,” Schauffele said. “So I’m sure he’s having a blast. But for the rest of us, he’s making it awfully boring.”