Brooks Koepka becomes seventh repeat winner of US Open final

Brooks Koepka becomes seventh repeat winner of US Open final
Brooks Koepka holds up the Golf Champion Trophy after winning the U.S. Open. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

By Adam Schupak

Brooks Koepka had just shot a 41 for nine holes in his first high school golf match when he made a proclamation from the backseat of his dad's car.

He was just 12 years old and in the sixth grade, a little squirt pounding driver at every hole, but none of that matter. He was going to dropout at 16 and turn pro.

Bob Koepka pulled the car off to the side of the road and laid down the law to his oldest of two boys.

"Look, son, you're going to finish high school, you're going to go to college and graduate and if you're good enough, then you can turn pro," Bob said.

But let's give Brooks credit for his moxie and the self-belief that may be his biggest asset en route to becoming just the seventh repeat winner of the U.S. Open and the first player to do so since Curtis Strange 29 years ago.

Koepka shot a final-round 2-under 68 at Shinnecock Hills to retain the championship by one stroke over Englishman Tommy Fleetwood.

When Koepka won the title at Erin Hills last year, where the fairways were the size of airport runways, he bludgeoned the course by bashing driver-wedge and making birdies by the bunches.

"Everyone said Erin Hills was set up for me. It was set up for a lot of guys that bomb the ball," he said.

I just happened to play a little bit better that week.

Koepka, 28, is a flatliner and rarely shows any emotion. "He looks like water off a ducks back," Strange said.

But every parent knows their children's facial expressions and Bob and his wife were watching from home and there was a closeup of Brooks and she noticed he had what she calls "That Koepka look."

"She said, there's that look. He's got it today," Bob said.

Koepka tied the U.S. Open 72-hole scoring record (set by Rory McIlroy in 2011) with an aggregate of 16-under 272.

Afterwards, Koepka watched his name engraved on the trophy and excused himself to use the bathroom. He screamed for joy, nicked his fist against the mirror, and forgot to use the restroom.

When he read the names of the champions on the trophy during the flight home, his voice cracked and he started to cry. It finally hit him that his name was forever part of golf history.

But late last year, Koepka partially tore a tendon in his left wrist and his doctor recommended 8-to-12 weeks of rest and therapy to repair it.

Sidelined for four months in a soft cast up to his elbow, Koepka bought a puppy, watched loads of TV, packed on 15 pounds and for the first time missed the game.

"For someone like Brooks who has never been a golf nerd, I think he fell in love with golf for the first time in his life," said instructor Claude Harmon III.

Missing the Masters was particularly tough and he began practicing the following week. On the first day he started hitting full shots, he called his caddie, Ricky Elliott, who drove to watch him.

"He was flushing it," Elliott said.

Koepka's defense of his U.S. Open title marked just his sixth start since he returned. As Elliott and Koepka marched down the fairway of their first hole of the championship, Elliott turned to him and said:

It feels like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders. We've given the trophy back. Now we've got to go win it again.

But this title defense didn't begin swimmingly for Koepka. Blustery winds made Shinnecock Hills a torture chamber compared to Erin Hills and he ballooned to a 5-over 75 in the first round.

It didn't look much better on Day 2 as Koepka soared to 7 over for his first 25 holes. Elliott was his usual calming influence, and provided just the pep talk he needed.

"He told me 'Get it going, get it back. We're not out of this thing.' He was right," Koepka said.

"I think he told me it was going to get easier, so just hang in there, and it did on Friday."

Koepka benefited from the better tee times in the opening rounds, especially when the wind laid down in the afternoon Friday and he birdied six of his last 11 holes to shoot 66.

"There's nobody more confident here than me," Koepka said on Friday when he surged into contention.

The third round was a survival-of-the-fittest test as Shinnecock Hills crossed the line from tough to unfair. Koepka hung tough to shoot 2-over 72 and claim a share of the 54-hole lead.

In the final round, the USGA watered the greens at Shinnecock Hills, and no one took advantage of the improved scoring conditions like Fleetwood, who missed a 5-foot birdie putt at 18 for a 62.

"It was hard not to miss," Koepka said of Fleetwood's rally from six strokes off the pace at the start of the day.

It was the lowest red number up there. Seven under is incredible.

Keopka circled three birdies of his own on the front side to go out in 33 and keep in front of his good friend and workout partner, Dustin Johnson, and Masters champion Patrick Reed, who made birdies on five of the first seven holes to catch Koepka at one point.

But Reed, Johnson and 54-hole co-leader Tony Finau all played the second nine in over par while Koepka pulled off a series of remarkable recovery shots.

His father noticed what his wife says is "that Koepka look," or what he called "those steely eyes," as he watched Brooks from inside the ropes.

"Brooks kept giving me like this little bit of hope and then he'd hole a putt just to stab you in the stomach a little bit," Fleetwood said.

The biggest threat of all was at the shortest of holes. At the 159-yard par-3 11th, Koepka made a critical error, missing the green to the left and his pitch rolled across the green and into a bunker. But he splashed out and canned a 13-foot bogey putt.

"The putt on 11 was pretty big," he said. "The 6-footer on 12 was pretty big, and then 14."

Another clutch 9-foot par putt. He wedged to 4 feet and made birdie at 16 to give himself a 2-stroke cushion, and he needed it after he tugged his second shot left of the 18th green and into one of the closely-mowed areas, leaving a delicate pitch.

"That is all nerves," said Strange, who walked the round with Koepka's group as Fox TV's on-course analyst.

You couldn't spit if you had a knife to your stomach.

Strange knew better than anyone the mental fortitude and self-belief required to win on two different courses, 12 months apart against two world-class fields and refuse to give up your crown.

When Koepka tapped in for bogey and a 72-hole total of 1-over 281, Strange hugged him tightly and whispered in his ear, "Way to go, buddy."

Two in a row, and this time at a classic course. Koepka won't be overlooked as one of the best young talents in the game any longer. Not with his killer instinct at golf's ultimate examination.

"It's a fun week. I enjoy the test," he said.

I enjoy being pushed to the limit. Sometimes you feel like you are going to break mentally, but that's what I enjoy.

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