Another major champion under 30 underlines golf’s bright future
Brooks Koepka was tied for the lead on the back nine on Sunday at the US Open. He had never won a major before. With the leaderboard deeper into the red than anybody had imagined, with few of the PGA’s usual suspects in contention, any number of scenarios could have been playing out in his mind. As late as the 12th fairway, Koepka was still tied with his playing partner Brian Harman. Ahead of him, Hideki Matsuyama was making a late charge that produced difficult-to-ignore crowd reactions.
Koepka proceeded to run away and hide, getting to -16 and winning the US Open by four strokes. He made the pressure shots. He dropped the putts. He earned a major championship on the back nine on Sunday.
People can say what they wish about Erin Hills, and how weather took the bite out of it, making it look more like the Open Championship than the US Open. That is out of the players’ control. What Koepka did is impressive on any course, because what Koepka did has little to do with his final score or how soft the greens were. Keep in mind he would only have had to par out from that twelfth hole and he would have won at -13. Instead he poured it on.
Whether his final score was -16 or -2, that finish is how majors are won, and that finish demonstrates why Brooks Koepka is a major champion.
Practice makes perfect. Perhaps what separated Koepka from his competitors, and the contenders from those who struggled or missed the cut, was how many tournaments they have played over the course of the year. Koepka has had 17 starts on tour this year, Matsuyama 15, Harman 21. That’s a lot of time spent on golf courses, and all of them looked to be in full control of their games.
Dustin Johnson missed some time due to injury. He looked healthy at Erin Hills, but a bit out of rhythm. So did Rory McIlroy, who has only played seven events this year.
For someone like Brooks Koepka, a physically gifted individual, that midseason form is critical. He was excellent from tee to green all week long, trusting every club in his bag and trusting his caddie to help guide him. There is no substitute for that kind of confidence in a major.
Expect to see a lot of Koepka moving forward. He’s a player with hard-to-match length off the tee and a devotion to practice as well as offseason training. It’s not a hard formula if you can find all the pieces; take a physically gifted person, give them a deep love for golf, convince them to hit the gym when necessary, and you can craft a champion. The only problem is that putting it all together is rare. Koepka has done that, and that puts him right into a growing group of young pros that are setting up a truly special field.
Koepka is another example of the camaraderie that makes the current iteration of the Tour unique. This field gets along, and they hone their games together as friends. They are the ultimate example of golf being a game against the course and not the other golfers. Koepka’s size and length has people comparing him to Dustin Johnson, and as it turns out Koepka works out with DJ. That means the last US Open Champion helped shape the current one.
That friendship on tour runs deep. Rickie Fowler took time out of his post-round interview on Saturday, unprompted, to congratulate Justin Thomas for his record-setting round. Thomas, Fowler, Jordan Spieth and a number of others are playing tournaments together, even if they are technically competitors. You and I may cheer on our playing partners on public courses, but there’s not five figures riding on the difference between a stroke here and there. Golf has seen friendships in the past, but never like this.
Contrast Fowler’s attitude against one of the old greats and current voices of golf, Johnny Miller. Thomas’ round broke a record held by Miller, and understandably the past champion still has that competitive streak. Of course he wanted to hold his record. Yet, mere moments after Thomas had broken that record, there was Miller telling people about how Erin Hills is no Oakmont and this US Open isn’t one that he is familiar with.
That’s a voice of the game. That is a person whose job is, more or less, to be one of the sport’s hype men. His take on a shootout of a US Open full of the young talent that will be defining the tour he announces for years to come was that it’s no 1973. It’s no wonder, then, why the casual sports fan’s first thought on golf is about what the tour currently doesn’t have.
It’s not that the PGA is absolutely flush with talent born after January 1, 1990. It’s not that seven of the last eight guys to win majors have a minimum of ten years left on their professional golf careers, in some cases it could be closer to twenty. It’s not that these guys get along so well that the PGA put together a team event to showcase it, or that when they’re not playing golf together for a living they go on vacation to play golf together for fun. These are never the headlines. The headlines are about what golf lacks, what era has passed, what will happen now. To hear some people tell it, golf sounds a lot like the way we’ve talked about boxing since the fall of Mike Tyson.
Folks like Miller, and he’s not alone in golf’s voices who use those voices to lament that which the game lacks, have the sport looking to its own recent past instead of running with their imaginations to figure out the sport’s future.
Brooks Koepka was born in 1990. He could be competing in majors fifteen years from now and it wouldn’t be surprising given the longevity of professional golfers. Have you heard that before? If you’re a golf fan, you’ve certainly heard people in the last 24 hours who wanted to look fifteen years in the past.
Among the competitors who challenged Koepka: Tommy Fleetwood, who we might see in the next seven Ryder Cups. Rickie Fowler plays a style of golf not that dissimilar to Phil Mickelson, and if his career goes in a similar direction he’ll still be in the field in 2037. Speaking of Phil, Justin Thomas, Si Woo Kim, Trey Mullinax, and Xander Schauffele are all less than half his age.
Jordan Spieth is 23 and it feels like he’s been on Tour for a decade already. He could have two more in him. Potentially more than that. Patrick Reed seems like he’s just breaking out in the past year, and he’s only 26. The PGA has an embarrassment of riches under 30.
As a result, we get a new major champion every time around these days. It’s not that there is nobody good enough to win multiple majors, it’s that there are too many good players to allow for that anymore. Matsuyama is hitting the ball as well as any of these guys, he’s never won one. Thomas has yet to win one and really only begun competing for them. Reed’s Ryder Cup experience seems to foreshadow some major trophies. Every year we add a couple new young greats to this list of competitors.
This field will change the game in its own right, as every great era of the Tour has. It all builds off of itself; Bobby Jones set the stage for Arnold Palmer who passed the torch to Jack who primed the ground for Tiger who inspired this new generation.
These guys are unique in that they play to the crowd more than golfers typically have in the past. Not just the emotion; plenty of players have upheld a longstanding tradition of having fun in front of the galleries, but this crew embraces the loudest and most atypical crowds. They thrive on the Stadium Hole at the Waste Management, the Ryder Cup sent them to a whole new level, and as much as the viewers may complain about loudmouths at the US Open I saw more than a couple players smile at some of the absurd comments.
Remember: This is not just a generation of golfers who grew up idolizing Tiger Woods. It’s also the generation of golfers who grew up laughing at Happy Gilmore. Both of these things have had an impact on tour.
Koepka is now the seventh straight major winner to win for the first time on such a scale. With the exceptions of Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia, the other five are all less than 33 years of age, meaning they will be competing for majors for the foreseeable future.