Brooks Koepka has taken over golf like the dominant players before him
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — And, like so many Long Islanders before us, we will now bow in the direction of The Boss:
It’s the fever,
Oh I’ve got the fever.
Nothing that a poor boy can do.
If you don’t have BK Fever now, call your cardiologist immediately. Something’s wrong.
The rest of us will keep singing the chorus.
The rise and rise of Brooks Koepka — man in black on Saturday at Bethpage Black when he shot an emotionally-flat third-round 70 — is the most extraordinary development in this finicky cross-country game since Tiger Woods started winning major titles at an astonishing clip in the Early Aughts. As for Woods, back then, he was doing things that golf had not seen since Jack Nicklaus started winning majors in the early 1960s.
How about that Big Three? Jack, Tiger, Koepka.
No, we’re not forgetting about Rory McIlroy, a most excellent person and the winner of four majors. But his last major title came in 2014. As for Jordan Spieth, the brightest and most delightful person on the PGA Tour, he’s fascinating to watch and a pleasure to listen to. But he hasn’t won a major since the 2017 British Open. And ever since, his game has been strange and erratic.
At the end of the day these days, power rules, more often than not. So, Koepka rules. At least on a golf course as wet and long as this one. The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach next month and the British Open at Portrush in Northern Ireland in July will be more inviting to the rest of the field. In the meantime, we’re here.
We’re here on a course far brawnier than Brooks Koepka’s scores (63, 65 followed by the even-par 70) would suggest it is. He’ll be playing golf in a short-sleeved shirt again on Sunday, as Koepka did Saturday. They say speed kills, but not on the PGA Tour in 2019. It must hurt, to be his golf ball.
It must be good, to be his brain, too. Every round of golf has some funky moments. Koepka’s thing is to step in and play on. His facial expressions range from what-me-worry? to I-got-this.
And now, with a seven-shot lead in this 101st PGA Championship, Brooks Koepka is one solid round away from winning back-to-back PGA Championships. Last year, 60 miles east on Sunrise Highway, Koepka won his second straight U.S. Open at another classic course, Shinnecock Hills. He has three majors and his fourth is almost surely coming on Sunday. As for his career major-title haul, Koepka says he’s aiming for double-digits. In other words, somewhere between 10 and 99. The only things that would stop that from happening is injury, boredom or a bad marriage. Brooks Koepka is 29, unmarried and has his eyes on the prize.
Yes, Koepka’s mother (Denise Jakows, a former newscaster) and girlfriend (Jena Sims, a sometimes actor), are often greenside when the day is done. Noted.
Koepka wore glorified bicycle pants to work on Saturday, suitable for the gym, long overnight flights, and for sending out the message that the game’s wet-wool history isn’t his thing. He is see-ball, hit-ball. He’s here-and-now. He’s the golfer-as-ballplayer.
Bethpage Black is part of a state park and through three glorious days this has been no preppie Woodstock, as last year’s U.S. Open was. This year, denim is the new pink-and-green. The fans here, where backward caps are de riguer, are a perfect match for this Brooks Koepka Power Show.
Curtis Strange was the last person to win consecutive U.S. Opens, until Koepka did it last year. It was Strange who did a greenside interview for Fox Sports when the shouting was over last year at Shinnecock. Tiger Woods was the last person to win consecutive PGA Championships, which he did in 2006 and 2007. Woods finished second to Koepka at last year’s PGA at Bellerive in St. Louis. Koepka returned the favor at the Masters last month.
By all available evidence, there’s a nice rapport between Woods and Koepka, two South Florida big-plate lifters who have shared team rooms in 2016, 2017 and 2018. When Woods won his first major in 11 years at Augusta in April, Koepka was there to bro hug him. When Koepka won in St. Louis on a broiling Sunday in August at last year’s PGA, Woods hung out by the locker room door until Koepka made his way there.
Koepka would never admit this, because close-to-the-vest is his stock-in-trade, but after playing the first two rounds here with Woods, the Saturday round had to be something of an emotional letdown. Koepka, 29 and in his prime, played the first two rounds in 128 shots. Woods, 43 and trying to keep his body together, played them in 145.
Greg Norman had a remarkable insight into this PGA Championship on Saturday. In a message to GOLF.com, he wrote, “I loved the way [Koepka] played through Tiger. Nothing fazes him and I believe TW was a bit taken back because he could not keep pace.”
Norman’s son, Greg Jr., is friends with Koepka, and Norman has been around him and is impressed by how he goes about every aspect of his business. Norman and Woods have never had anything like a close relationship.
“I hope [Koepka] wins by 15, to be honest,” Norman wrote. “Love the way he is so low-key, yet a killer, with not let-off.”
It’s a fine-line, looking like you’re a low-key golfer (Fred Couples, Dustin Johnson) and actually being a low-key golfer (Retief Goosen, Brooks Koepka). And it’s not, by any means, the only way to the Hall of Fame. Consider the careers of Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, to rattle off three. But low-key is working for this guy.
He has a Sunday tee time millions of golfers would love to have at Bethpage Black, going off at 2:35 p.m. in a twosome, with Harold Varner. Varner is at 205, the same number of shots taken by Dustin Johnson, Luke List and Jazz Janewattananond. It’s going to be a battle royale, the fight for second place!
As for the eventual winner, this is Koepka’s seventh PGA Championship. His first was in 2013, at Oak Hill, where the Senior PGA Championship will be played next week. Phil Mickelson played with him that week, in a practice round. Koepka was a kid. Mickelson was already a legend and a former PGA winner. Mickelson, remembering that practice round, said on Saturday, said, “I knew he was going to be good. But you never know how good. He just kept getting better and better.”
Koepka, you might know, is a high priest of press-tent economy.
On Friday, he was asked this 61-word question: “When you say you didn’t strike it that good, one of the things that’s been most impressive this week is when you have gotten in the long grass, it seems like you’ve been able to muscle it out to get some good shots, good positions on the greens. Have you been surprised at how good you’ve been out of the rough?”
His answer required seven words, all of them short: “That’s why I go to the gym.”
On Saturday, he said, “I’m trying to win a golf tournament. I’m not focused on anything else other than hitting a good shot or a good putt.”
Sounds about perfect.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]