PGA, 19 May 2019: And so it has come to this at the PGA Championship: A multiple choice Sunday with only two options.
A. Brooks Koepka — who will start the day with a seven-stroke lead — taking a victory lap around Bethpage Black for his fourth major title in his last eight starts, stamping himself as the most dominant force currently in golf, Tiger or no Tiger
B. One of the most astonishing blown leads in recent golf history. A U-turn for the ages.
For anyone thinking about B, you might want to listen to some of the words Saturday night from the unflappable leader of this tournament since his first hole on Thursday.
“I’m definitely not going to let up, I promise you that.”
“I think I’m more focused than anybody out there. I think I’m tunnel-visioned.”
And, when the subject of what his heart rate might be while he’s trying to keep his golf shoe on the pedal . . .
“I don’t know what my resting heart rate is, probably not far off that. It would probably be not far off what it is sitting on the couch vs. the first tee or the 18th green.
“I’d say I’m pretty flatlined most of the time, as you can tell.”
Doesn’t sound like a guy ready to implode anytime soon, does it?
You wonder what the golfers behind him are thinking; whether they are aroused by the grand opportunity of Sunday at a major, or deflated with one look at the leaderboard. Or maybe both. Of the six golfers within eight shots, Dustin Johnson is the only one to ever win a major. Sunday will be so new to them.
Start with Luke List, one of four men who is seven shots back. “Some majors in history show some big leads guys come back from. Hopefully, this is one of them.”
List has never been through something like this. When he walked through the tunnel of fans climbing up the hill to No. 18 tee Saturday, and the New Yorkers chanted his name – “Luuuuuuke” – and stuck out their hands for him to slap, well, that was some fun, no matter how far ahead the man is he’s trying to catch.
Or Harold Varner III, who came from the pack to also tie for second. “You can’t sit there and just weep and be like, `Oh, he’s so much better.’ I think that’s going to push you. It almost ticks me off, that’s what I think.”
Varner said he has never been paired with Koepka. He will be Sunday as the last group. “I haven’t really watched him play a lot. I mean, he must be doing something good. Y’all keep asking me about him.
“My goal is to hit the fairway on No. 1 and start from there. Pretty simple. You know, life’s hard, this is easy.”
Or Xander Schauffele, nine shots behind: “He’s taking the tournament by the neck. I don’t see him giving (it) up . . . He’s just doing his thing, and everyone else is chasing.”
Or Jazz Janewattananond, tied for second and having the time of his life, this lad from Thailand who got his first look this week at New York City. It has been an adventure with the crowd trying to pronounce his name. A woman carrying a red Thailand umbrella, calling herself a family friend, was following him on No. 17 Saturday. She finally sighed, “They should just put up his first name. People would have an easier time.” And in fact, it would seem from the chants heard among the masses, Jazzy-J has become his most common nickname to them.
“They love me here,” he said.
Or Matt Wallace, who is eight back. “He’s a good golfer, isn’t he? That’s pretty much plain and simple. When you get the ball under control like he does and he’s putting great and chipping and putting and everything’s perfect, that kind of happens. Tiger did it. I remember (Colin Montgomery) saying, nobody was ever going to catch Tiger at that Masters that he won (his first, by 12 strokes). And this is pretty much the same.
“Who knows? I’ll try to finish highest of the bunch that I’m around and see where that puts me.”
And then there is Dustin Johnson, the biggest name among the closest pursuers in second place. “I’m going to need some help from him, and then I’m going to have to play very, very well.
“It can happen.”
Can it? Really? For the universe to shift so, Koepka would have to falter, and someone would have light up the scoreboard. Always possible, but Saturday showed no sign of it, on a windy course set up to give good scores only grudgingly. Nobody in the top 38 scored better than 67 – Varner and Janewattananond — or worse than 73. It was Barely Moving Day. And there in the middle of it all, as if he were playing prevent defense, Brooks Koepka with an even par 70.
His afternoon walk in the park began promptly at 2:50 p.m. First, he had to get announced, nod to the crowd, stare down No. 1 fairway, hit it halfway to Oyster Bay. And then off he went, as if he were taking a stroll on the beach.
Five hours later, he was back at No. 18 in the fading light, and little had changed at the PGA Championship. It had not been a day for his A game, but merely an even-par excursion that included a little trouble and lots of sound shots – and ended the way it began, with a seven-stroke lead. “I struck it better than I did yesterday. I just didn’t putt as well,” he said.
He took a moment Saturday night to explain his approach in the majors, which has made him such a fierce presence.
“It’s simpler than what guys think. Guys make the mistake of trying to figure out, when they get to a major, what’s going on, what’s different. It’s not. It’s just focus. It’s grind it out, suck it up, and move on.
“You’re going to make a lot of mistakes. It’s a major championship. You know that’s going to happen, and guys have a hard time letting that go.”
And so this man of unyielding purpose and low heart rate has owned the leaderboard this week. Golf is not used to such things lately in the majors. The past six PGA Championships have been won by a combined 11 shots. The past eight British Opens by 17. The past 22 Masters by 36 shots, including six playoffs. The past four U.S. Opens by nine.
But here’s Koepka, on a roll that has lasted a while. Going back to the 2017 U.S. Open, when he began stacking major victories, he is 57-under par in his last 31 rounds in a major.
Varner called Koepka’s hot major hand and the attention that is building with it, good for golf. Why? “Because it’s going to make the other guys push themselves. Some guys won’t, but it’s pretty much what Tiger did for golf in general. It’s the reason why people work out. It’s the reason why people are so good. It’s the reason why Brooks is doing what he’s doing right now, I think.”
But all that is for later. Sunday, they have to hope the sky falls in on him. If not, Brooks Koepka will be in a new golfing stratosphere by dusk.
“It’s just another day of work for me,” he said of Sunday.
No, it is not.