SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — In the shadow of Shinnecock Hills’s stately clubhouse, in the tense moments before the 2:13 tee time of the 118th U.S. Open, a Noo Yawk voice pierced the silence: “American muscle!” Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson both smiled in acknowledgement. These bash brothers have owned the Open of late, having won the last two. On Sunday they were in prime position again, tied for the lead. They are the archetype of the modern golfer, with gym-toned physiques and Trackman-optimized launch angles. That they have emerged together as the game’s most overpowering forces is not a coincidence. Koepka and Johnson train together nearly every day, talking trash and pushing heavy metal. They come by that American muscle honestly. In a joint interview in their Florida gym late last year, they discussed the surprising fact that they’ve never tangled late on a Sunday afternoon.
“It’s gonna happen one of these days, it has to,” said Koepka, 28. “It’ll be fun. It’ll be intense. We’ll be trying to beat each other’s brains in.”
“You’re still playing against the golf course,” said Johnson, 33, claiming his usual role as the O.G. in the relationship.
On Sunday, Johnson did focus on playing the course, with only moderate success. He kept his head down and barely acknowledged his friend. For Koepka, it was more personal. He came into this Open with only two career victories, compared to 18 for Johnson. Even his U.S. Open breakthrough last year has come to be devalued, as if it was his fault that Erin Hills had such wide fairways and played so easy. “I’m always overlooked,” he says with a shrug, but Koepka has way too much ego to be content cast as DJ’s sidekick. The final round of this U.S. Open was the chance he had been waiting for to forever alter the dynamic of their relationship.
“He didn’t even make the notables page on Golf Channel in their recap on Thursday night,” said Koepka’s swing coach Claude Harmon III. “As the defending champion. He uses that as motivation. He always says he’ll let his clubs do the talking.”
Based on the volume of the cheers on the 1st tee, Johnson was the people’s choice at the national championship, but he looked skittish in the early going on Sunday, missing a series of birdie chances. Koepka gave no quarter. He birdied three of the first five holes, preening all the while.
“He’s super cocky, but it works for him,” says Brian Gay. “When he starts strutting around you know you’re in trouble. I was paired with him for the first two rounds this year at the Fort Worth Invitational and it was a joke. He was driving it 320 dead straight on every hole and making every putt. It was like, you can’t beat that.”
On Open Sunday, Koepka was aided by a user-friendly course. After the carnage of the third round, the USGA overcorrected and presented a meek setup, with overly softened greens and pin positions so generous they looked like they were inspired by a Wednesday pro-am at the Bob Hope. Rickie Fowler went out early and hung up a 65, merely 19 strokes better than his score from the day before. Patrick Reed, chasing the second leg of the grand slam, put a charge into Shinnecock Hills by birdieing four of the first five holes, along the way briefly snagging a piece of Koepka’s lead. Tommy Fleetwood, the diminutive golfing savant from England, was on no one’s radar screen after a third round 78. A front-nine 33 got him to the bottom of the leaderboard and then he stirred the ghost of Tony Jacklin (and Johnny Miller) with a burst of four straight birdies on the back nine accomplished with supremely elegant golf. That propelled Fleetwood to seven under on his round and within one stroke of the lead as he faced the easiest hole on the back nine, the par-5 16th. But he messed up the layup and then babied a 13-foot putt, dooming him to a costly par. Fleetwood came to 18 still one stroke behind Koepka. On the second-hardest hole at Shinnecock, he split the fairway and then, from 197 yards, stuffed a six-iron to just outside eight feet. The Open was within his grasp but the putter must’ve felt like an anvil because the birdie try was never on-line and missed on the low side. Still, the 63 tied for the lowest round in U.S. Open history, and Fleetwood had put down a marker at two over as the leaders made the turn.
Reed was the first to buckle under the strain, bogeying the 9th, 11th and 12th (a three-putt, sniped short-iron and wayward drive, respectively). Johnson hung around on the strength of gorgeous iron play but he putted like a man with PTSD, which he may have actually contracted while getting brutalized in the worst conditions the day before. Johnson missed 4-footers on the 7th and 11th holes to take killing bogeys. The tournament turned on 11, the fearsome little par-3 with a crazy green straight out of the 19th century. Johnson had birdied it all three previous rounds and played a lovely shot below the pin. Koepka hooked his pitching wedge over the green into heavy grass. His second shot, up a vertiginous hill, skittered across the green into a bunker and he blasted out to 13 feet. A two-shot swing was in the offing but Koepka gutted his bogey putt and Johnson missed his birdie try and then yipped his little par effort and they both took bogey, though Koepka’s felt like a birdie. His spirit thusly broken, Johnson missed a crucial 16-footer for birdie on 13 and suffered an ugly three-putt on 14 — and his bid was pretty much over.
Koepka, meanwhile, headed for home with no margin for error. Walking off the 11th green he was one over, with Fleetwood’s score hanging over him like a piano suspended on a fraying rope. He drove into the rough on both 12 and 14 but made gritty U.S. Open pars on each, notably at the 14th where he got up and down from 67 yards, punctuated by a curling eight-footer and a macho fist-pump.
Koepka is more than just a bomber – in 2017 he was 11th on Tour in proximity to the hole on approaches from 75-100 yards – and on 16 he feathered a wedge to four feet for a crucial birdie and a two-stroke lead. He was escorted up the final fairways by the last legend to win back-to-back U.S. Opens, Curtis Strange, who was doing commentary on the telecast. “That was pretty cool,” said Koepka.
When it was over, Strange offered a warm embrace to Koepka, who is only the seventh man to win back-to-back Opens, including the likes of Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan. “He’s some player,” said Strange. “I’m proud of him because there was some talk last year that Erin Hill was not the Open as the Open is supposed to be. He won on a classic [today], so he’s an Open player.”
Koepka’s triumph completes a comeback from a wrist injury that forced him to miss the first four months of the season. He was ready to go upon his return because, says his trainer Joey Diovisalvi, “He killed himself in the gym to prepare his body. He did everything we asked of him and then some. He showed tremendous discipline and maturity to put in that time and effort, even as he was frustrated he couldn’t touch a club.” Harmon thinks the time away from the game was beneficial in other ways: “I think he fell in love with golf again.” Koepka prides himself on not being what he calls “a golf nerd,” but he sat on his couch watching the Masters for maybe the first time ever, what Harmon saw as a manifestation of a new engagement with the game.
While Koepka was rounding back into form his buddy DJ kept wracking up weeks atop the World Ranking and, in the final tune-up before the U.S. Open, another victory. Koepka anointed Johnson the final round favorite but Strange knew it would be complicated. “The toughest round I ever had to play was the last round at Augusta one year with [best friend] Jay Haas,” says Strange, noting they started the day two strokes off the lead. “I didn’t want to care about him but you care about him.”
In the champion’s press conference, Koepka hailed Johnson as “one of the most talented guys ever to play the game.” That may be true, but talent is hard to quantify. Victories are not. After a tense day at Shinnecock Hills, Koepka now has two U.S. Open victories. His sidekick Johnson has only one.