June 19, 2017: Brooks Koepka traveled around the world to find his game. He found stardom right at home as the U.S. Open champion.
Koepka broke away from a tight pack with three straight birdies on the back nine Sunday at Erin Hills and closed with a 5-under 67 to win the U.S. Open for his first major championship. A par on the final hole tied Rory McIlroy‘s record score to par at 16 under for a four-shot victory.
Not even the wind could stop the onslaught of low scores at Erin Hills.
And nothing could stop Koepka.
“What I’ve done this week is amazing,” Koepka.
Tied for the lead with six holes to play, Koepka made an 8-foot par putt on the 13th hole. As Brian Harman began to fade, Koepka poured it on with birdies over the next three holes, lightly pumping his fist after each one.
His reaction was subdued, just like his close friend and last year’s U.S. Open champion, Dustin Johnson. They spend time a lot of time together on the course, in the gym and at home, so Koepka has seen that U.S. Open trophy plenty at Johnson’s house in south Florida.
And now he gets to keep it for a year, with his name on it.
It capped quite a journey for the 27-year-old Floridian. Without a card on any tour when Koepka got out of Florida State, he filled his passport with stamps from the most unlikely outposts in golf while playing the minor leagues on the European Tour — Kazakhstan and Kenya, Portugal and India and throughout Europe.
It was at the U.S. Open three years ago when Koepka tied for fourth that helped earn a PGA TOUR card, and he powered his way from obscurity to his first PGA TOUR victory in Phoenix, his first Ryder Cup team last fall and now a major championship.
Harman’s chances ended with two straight bogeys, and a bogey on the par-5 18th hole gave him a 72 and a tie for second with Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who closed with a 66. Matsuyama didn’t need to stick around very long. Koepka simply couldn’t miss.
Koepka, who finished at 16-under 272, became the seventh straight first-time winner of a major championship, and it was the first time since 1998-2000 that Americans won their national championship three straight years.
Tommy Fleetwood, who played alongside Koepka and closed with a 72 to finish fourth, played the Challenge Tour a year before Koepka arrived.
“It gives you a good grounding,” Fleetwood said. “Obviously, Brooks dealt with it amazingly. He came and kicked everyone’s (behind) over there, didn’t he? But he’s proven for a long time how good he is. Now he’s done it in a major.”
It was only fitting that Koepka left Erin Hills with yet another record matched or broken.
McIlroy finished at 16-under 268 when he won on rain-softened Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open. But the low scoring went much deeper than that. Only six players had ever reached double digits under par in the previous 116 times at the U.S. Open. McIlroy and Tiger Woods (12 under at Pebble Beach in 2000) had been the only players to finish there.
This week alone, nine players reached at least 10 under and seven finished there.
Xander Schauffele, a rookie on the PGA TOUR playing in his first U.S. Open, birdied his last hole for a 69 to tie for fifth at 10-under 268 along with Bill Haas (69) and Rickie Fowler (72), who was poised at yet another major to win only to fall back. Fowler started one shot out of the lead at the Masters this year and shot 76. He was only two behind when he made the turn, but bogeys on the 12th and 15th holes — and no birdies until No. 18 — ended his hopes.
Justin Thomas, coming off a 9-under 63 that matched the major championship scoring record and was the first 9-under round at a U.S. Open, went out in 39 and closed with a 75 to tie for ninth.
The week ended with 31 players under par, breaking the U.S. Open record of 28 players at Medinah in 1990. There were 133 sub-par rounds, nine more than the previous record in that 1990 U.S. Open.
Erin Hills, an 11-year-old course shaped out of Wisconsin pastureland, didn’t put up much of a fight without much wind. The strongest gusts were Sunday morning and it tapered to a strong breeze by the afternoon.
No one was more solid from start to finish than Koepka. He opened with a pair of tap-in birdies and putted for birdie on every hole but the par-3 13th. Of all his birdies, that 8-foot par putt might have been as big as any.
“I needed something to go in and see that to build momentum off it, and just carried that over,” Koepka said.