Tour Confidential: Breaking down Brooks Koepka’s win and grading the USGA and Erin Hills – Golf.com
1. Brooks Koepka bashed his way around Erin Hills to win the U.S. Open by four and become the seventh consecutive first-time major champion. His 16-under total tied Rory McIlroy’s mark (Congressional, 2011) for the lowest winning score in relation to par. Koepka doesn’t lack for firepower but does he have the staying power to become a consistent top-3 player?
John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): The talent pool is so deep these days, it’s hard to say who will have the staying power to be a top-three player. I think becoming a consistent top-three player, one must have talent, health, focus, but mostly desire. It’s impossible to tell what’s in a player’s soul when it comes to desire. Tiger WANTED, NEEDED and FOCUSED on winning and winning only, and that’s why he stayed at No. 1 for so long. To ask anyone to be a consistent top-three player these days, with the talent pool as deep as it is, is too tall an order to predict. My advice would be to enjoy this dominant performance for what it is.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer Sports Illustrated: His golf was ideal for what Erin Hills required. There are not many ideal matchups like that, with such length and such wide fairways. I think we’ll see a rotating cast of elite players for many years to come.
Sean Zak, associate editor, GOLF (@Sean_Zak): I’m not ready to crown a now-two-time winner a “consistent top-three player,” mainly from considering his competition, but what he’s done in majors speaks to a future in the top 10, for sure. Adding today’s victory, Koepka has finished T21 or better in his last eight majors. That’s elite stuff.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Wholehearted agreement with Dr. Wood here. As with so many sports, so much depends on intangibles. Inner drive. Physical health. Self belief. Happiness off the course. How much all of those Koepka maintains will have more to do with his staying power than anything else.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): The list of one-and-done major winners is lengthy. I’m not saying that’s Koepka’s fate, but his life just changed forever, and for most guys, that requires an adjustment. I certainly think he’ll win more tournaments. Why can’t some of those be majors?
Brooks Koepka, who before Sunday had one career PGA Tour victory, needs room for a new trophy.
2. Rickie Fowler grabbed an early lead with an opening 65 and entered the final round two shots off the lead. But he was never really a factor Sunday, posting an even-par 72 to finish six off the pace. What’s most preventing Fowler from sealing the deal at a major?
Wood: I’ve harped on this so many times before on these pages, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but it’s HARD to win any golf tournament these days. It is especially hard to win a major. Nothing’s preventing Fowler from sealing the deal. He continues to put himself there as much as anyone, and when the win comes, it comes. And when you ask Rickie what he did different from the times he didn’t seal the deal, I would venture to say he will say, “Nothing. It was just my day, it was just my time. I didn’t try to do anything other than what I normally do, this time it just worked.”
Bamberger: Rickie is almost a veteran now, with close to 200 Tour starts. He’s won four times. He’s played in 30 majors, and has contended often. When he’s played in 50, he will likely have won one. He’ll win majors likely at about the same rate he wins more ordinary Tour events. No different than a baseball batting average. He’s very good in an era with many very good players. Patrick Reed is every bit as good and Jonathan Byrd was, too.
Zak: No need to change the script from what John and Michael have said here. Beating every other damn golfer in the event is no simple feat, and it just hasn’t happened in Rickie’s first 30 tries. So, what does he do? He tries his hardest to put himself in position for it to happen in major No. 31, major No. 32, major No. 33, and so on. Knock on the door as many times until someone opens it.
Sens: At one point during the broadcast, one of the commentators (I think it was Faxon) said that Fowler was trying to step too hard on all of his iron shots, suggesting that he was forcing it. Fowler may say that he’s not doing anything different when he’s in contention in the majors and maybe that’s true. But maybe he’s kidding himself. With all the hoopla around these big events, and with all the expectations that swell around Fowler every time he gets close, who could blame him for feeling — and playing differently — in those moments. That doesn’t mean he won’t eventually win a major. But doing so might require him to acknowledge the possibility that maybe, just maybe, something does indeed change about his game down the stretch.
Ritter: I walked with Fowler for part of his final round, and his just didn’t give himself enough birdie chances. Today, his irons let him down (11 of 18 greens in reg). But after the round he seemed completely at peace with the result and confident with his form. He doesn’t do pity parties. He’ll be back, and I bet he gets his major soon.
Rickie Fowler shot an even-par 72 Sunday.
3. After the USGA made unwanted headlines in the last two U.S. Opens, USGA executive director Mike Davis stressed the association needed to get this one right. Mission accomplished?
Wood: Hmm. I think the intent and possibilities for this course and setup were in the right place. Unfortunately for the USGA, the weather did not cooperate. Had we had a dry and windy week, I think we would have seen a far different tournament. With the lack of any real wind except for Sunday, and a soft course throughout due to rains that came at night, there’s nothing the USGA could do. If you were swinging well, the fairways were big and soft (read: no rollout into the bad places), and the greens remained very receptive all week. I will say this as a caddie, and as someone who watched the shootout on Saturday with no wind whatsoever: I’ve never seen or experienced a U.S. Open without fear until this week. Fear that a good shot would be repelled by a rock-hard green. Fear that a good drive would roll out just one yard too far on a firm fairway into five-inch thick, heavy, hackout rough. Notice I said “good” shot. Not “great,” not “perfect,” but good. U.S. Opens to me have always demanded great. They’ve always demanded as close to perfect as possible. No matter how well you were playing, swinging, thinking, and controlling your emotions, there always existed that fear in the back of your brain that this shot, that any shot, could spell disaster. That didn’t exist this week. There was no fear. Erin Hills dry, firm, windy and fast might have brought fear. But once the weather didn’t cooperate, there was no backup plan that could be done with the setup.
Bamberger: The USGA is close to having an identity crisis. Does it want to be our friend or our leader? I want the Far Hillers to lead. But the culture of the day is so democratic now that the players dictate so much, and so does TV. As John said in an interview this week, the fear-factor was not present at Erin Hills. Fear — controlling fear — is what the U.S. Open is all about. Or was.
Zak: What the USGA needs “to get right,” is to get people off their back. They need to construct a fair, difficult test for the U.S. Open once a year. That does not need to include any preordained notions about par. It needs to include words like playability, fairness, challenging, etc. With that in mind, I’d say they succeeded this week in keeping the focus off them, and on the competition, you know, like Augusta National and the R&A do every single year.
Sens: Beautiful course but the combination of the weather and the safe setup made it less than a great U.S. Open course this week. As many players said, it was just too much grip it and rip it to feel like a proper national championship.
Ritter: Right. A true U.S. Open includes small moves up the leaderboard, but the real drama comes from watching guys hold on for dear life and avoid the spectacular crashout. This edition lacked that. Like Wood said, if the USGA was dealt different weather, the entire tournament changes. On the bright side: no rules fiascoes of any kind.