ERIN, Wis. — It seems straightforward that one of the longest drivers in the history of golf would succeed on the most expansive major championship course of all 441 that have been contested. But there is also an irony to the way Brooks Koepka won the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Koepka emerged from a scrum of bunched-up, baby-faced, electric American talents that included Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed on the final day of the tournament. He fired a final-round 67 to tie a U.S. Open record of 16 under par and slam the door on Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama by four strokes to win his first major championship.
It wasn’t easy, but it didn’t look all that difficult.
After not making a single bogey on the back nine at Erin Hills over the first three days, Koepka three-putted No. 10 on Sunday to drop a stroke to the field and fall back into a tie at the time with Harman at 13 under. It was the last mistake he would make.
The course at Erin Hills was chided all week for being too easy. Johnny Miller even joked that it was like a Greater Milwaukee Open after Justin Thomas tied his U.S. Open record of 63 in the third round. It’s true that Koepka’s score of 272 was tied with four others for the third-lowest in modern U.S. Open history.
But it’s also true that the track in Erin received more rain and less wind than the USGA had planned. A land that was penal on huge misses and required an acute dispersion of drives and approach shots amid its sprawling fairways was tougher than it looked and more strategically-demanding than you would imagine.
Koepka played it perfectly after the hiccup on No. 10. He made three straight pars followed by three straight birdies on the heart of the course in the heat of the tournament on Sunday, and that is how U.S. Opens are taken with simplicity. After a messy couple of years for the USGA at Chambers Bay and Oakmont, Koepka left no doubt.
“I don’t think I even mentioned to my caddie, Ricky, even about winning all week,” said Koepka. “He just told me, ‘You’re playing good, just keep going. Let’s go. Let’s finish this thing off. One more good shot. One more good shot.’ And that was kind of all we talked about all week. It sounds pretty boring, but it’s the truth.'”
You can drink boring out of U.S. Open trophies.
Koepka holed a touchy 9-foot par putt on No. 12 to save himself. An up-and-down from the bunker on the par-5 14th put him at 14 under. Then he ended the drama on a hole that exemplified the nuanced strategy of a course with 50-yard-wide fairways.
The 15th is short for a par 4 — on Sunday it played just 356 yards. But because of a tucked back-right pin that yielded just six birdies all day, Koepka laid up off the tee, and he did not lay up particularly well.
“On 15, I kind of hit actually a poor tee shot,” said Koepka.
He had 150 yards to the hole and hit an 8-iron to eight feet. A birdie there and that basically sealed the deal.
“That second shot was unbelievable,” said Koepka. “That pin is hanging off the back and into the wind. It was pretty impressive, or I thought. It was probably one of the best shots I’ve hit all week, to be honest with you.”
“Down the stretch, he was brilliant,” said playing partner Tommy Fleetwood, who shot even-par 72. “He wasn’t missing shots … 15 was the best shot I thought he hit all day. I think it might have been a little late flying into that back right pin. I can’t tell you how hard that shot is. I think that was the best shot he hit all day. He just cruised and he played great. It was very good to watch.”
That shot on No. 15 was a microcosm for Koepka’s entire week. He led the field in greens hit in regulation with a stunning 62 of 72. He was T4 in the field in fairways hit with 49 of 56. The towering, overpowering American didn’t miss a damn spot the entire week. He came into this tournament No. 151 on the PGA Tour in fairways hit and No. 98 in greens in regulation. Then he finished top five in both.
And this is the ironic part: Koepka didn’t win on a 7,800-yard course because he was long (even though he was long). He won because he was more accurate than anyone in the field. Koepka hitting 49 of 56 fairways is not a good permutation for everyone else involved. On this week at Erin Hills, Koepka played with fire, but he won with ice.
“I played really solid from the moment we got here on Monday and all the way through until today,” said Koepka. “The ball-striking was pretty solid. It had to be today, especially with the wind. This golf course, you had to put the ball in the fairway and if you didn’t you really got penalized, just plain and simple.”
A long birdie putt at No. 16 allowed Koepka to float home. He parred No. 17 and went for the monstrous 681-yard 18th in two. He didn’t quite reach it, but the walk into the throat of the 72nd hole was spectacular anyway. Koepka removed his hat. He knew. The crowd gave him a rolling ovation. He made par and flexed his comically large right arm. It was over.
“It was always going to be difficult,” said his coach, Claude Harmon III. “The start helped him a lot. He was hitting so many greens. He had been hitting so many greens all week. We talked about that was the goal. I figured, if he could hit a lot of greens today, he was going to give himself looks.”
The stereotypes with Koepka are true. He’s built like Kam Chancellor, looks like James Franco and plays golf like you would expect a modern American archetype to play golf.
You may have heard the narrative this week about the athletic through line from Dustin Johnson to Koepka and on down the line to every senior in college with access to a gym and dreams of pocketing a PGA Tour card. This is a tired trope, but it’s also one that’s true. Everything Koepka does is big. He hits it forever. He walks courses like he helped construct them. And he closes with a finality bereft of geniality.
Koepka, who forged himself in Europe on a variety of tours, shot 65 in the final round of the 2014 Turkish Airlines Open to clip Ian Poulter by one. He got Hideki Matsuyama and Bubba Watson by one at the 2015 Phoenix Open with a closing 66. Then he teamed up with Brandt Snedeker to paste Danny Willett and Martin Kaymer at the 2016 Ryder Cup 5 and 4 before pummeling Willett on his own by the same margin. Koepka tied with Snedeker and Patrick Reed for high point man on that U.S. squad. The lesson? Koepka’s not here because he enjoys Sunday afternoon strolls.
It was more of the same at Erin Hills.
On a week when Middle America flexed on the best players in the game, Koepka clapped back at her 7,800 yards of toothy farmland not with the brute, blunt force you might expect but with the hands of a gentle giant.
His power was precise, and his precision was rewarded. His is the story of this 11-year-old course in the heart of the nation. You can fire up all the brawny tractors and tillers in the world to carve up this thick glacier-created land, and those engines will hum with the ferocity of a couple hundred horses. But without a steady guiding force to keep them centered, there is no Erin Hills.
Brooks Koepka without the ability to harness his preposterous ability is nothing more than a bad long drive contestant. But when Erin Hills asked Brooks Koepka to corral his distance and deliver a performance, he obliged.
No matter what you thought of the difficulty of the golf course this week, we can all agree that a U.S. Open asks so much of its participants. It begs you for 72 holes of incalculable consistency. It asks so much that it borders on the absurd.
Koepka satiated the land, though, and became the seventh consecutive first-time major winner in the process. He will be lauded over and clamored for because of his power and a swing speed that melts Trackmans. But on a week when Johnson, McIlroy and Jason Day all missed the cut despite shooting rocket after rocket into the low-hanging skies of Wisconsin, Koepka proved himself a golfer.
You can call Koepka many things. Prince of the driving range. Secret keeper of the Ryder Cup keys. Biggest badass on any tour on the planet. “He came and kicked everybody’s ass over there [in Europe], didn’t he?” said Fleetwood. But now you have to add one more moniker to that group.
United States Open champion.