Record Week at Erin Hills Ends With Koepka’s First Major Title
June 18, 2017 Erin, Wis. By David Shefter, USGA
Brooks Koepka produced a four-stroke victory at Erin Hills, carding a 5-under 67 in Sunday's final round. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

On the eve of the biggest final round of his young career, Brooks Koepka received a phone call from defending U.S. Open champion and close friend Dustin Johnson. Johnson, who missed the cut in the 117th U.S. Open at Erin Hills, offered the kind of encouragement a 27-year-old seeking his first major championship needed.

“He told me to just keep doing what I’m doing, you’re going to win the thing, and don’t get ahead of yourself,” said Koepka.

Then Koepka turned Johnson into a prophet.

Koepka, one of the biggest hitters in the game, continued to bring the longest U.S. Open venue to its knees. Starting Sunday one stroke behind 54-hole leader Brian Harman, the former Florida State All-American fired a 5-under-par 67 – his third sub-70 round of the championship – to produce a four-stroke victory over Harman and world No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama, of Japan.

Koepka’s 72-hole total of 16-under 272 was four strokes shy of the championship record registered by Rory McIlroy in 2011 at par-71 Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., and it tied the Northern Irishman’s mark in relation to par. He also became the seventh consecutive first-time major champion and the third American in a row to win the U.S. Open, the first time that’s happened since 2000 when Tiger Woods followed Payne Stewart and Lee Janzen.

It was all part of a record-setting week at Erin Hills, the first course to host a U.S. Open in Wisconsin. Even though the wind blew the hardest it had all championship – 15 to 25 mph – 18 under-par scores were posted on Sunday, bringing the total to 140, which surpassed the 124 registered in 1990 at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club.

Koepka’s four-stroke victory is the largest in the last nine majors, dating to 2015 U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth’s four-stroke win in the 2015 Masters.

Even more astonishing was the seven golfers who finished double digits under par, with Tommy  Fleetwood (11-under 277) finishing fourth, and Bill Haas, 18-hole leader Rickie Fowler and U.S. Open rookie Xander Schauffele tying for fifth at 10-under 278. Those relation-to-par numbers would have won all but two U.S. Opens: Woods’ 15-stroke romp in 2000 at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links and McIlroy’s eight-stroke victory in 2011.

Unfortunately for them, Koepka, No. 22 in the Official World Golf Ranking, was just too good. His impeccable ball-striking led to 17 of 18 greens hit, and his three consecutive birdies from Nos. 14-16 were the coup de grace.

Through nine holes, it appeared the championship would come down to a Koepka-Harman duel, and when the former registered his first three-putt of the championship on No. 10 for a bogey 5, the two were deadlocked at 13 under. Things could have unraveled for Koepka two holes later, but he converted a 9-foot par putt. That set the stage for his birdie barrage, including a 17-footer on the par-3 16th to reach 16 under.

When Harman made a bogey 5 on the par-4 12th and a rare three-putt on No. 13, any drama was all but removed.

“I don't believe in moral victories,” said Harman, the 2003 U.S. Junior Amateur champion who was vying to become the first left-handed golfer to hoist the U.S. Open Trophy. “I had an opportunity today and I didn't get it done. But at the same time, I don't feel as though I lost a golf tournament. I think Brooks went out and won the tournament.”

Matsuyama made a late run with five birdies over his final eight holes to get into the clubhouse at 12 under, but Koepka never wavered, producing a pair of pars on 17 and 18 to seal the win.

Koepka didn’t outwardly celebrate on the 18th green because he didn’t exactly know where Harman, in the final pairing behind him, stood. There was a small fist pump, then some congratulatory hugs with his caddie, agent and girlfriend before heading to the scoring area.

“We tried to enjoy it as much as we could,” said Richard Elliott, Koepka’s caddie. “We really just tried to keep our minds in the game and soak it up a little bit.”

Then again, Koepka isn’t a wear-his-emotions-on-his-sleeve individual. Sound familiar? Johnson plays with a similar demeanor, and demonstrated it last year at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, playing the final eight holes with the threat of a one-stroke penalty for his ball moving on the fifth green. He still won by three strokes.

Koepka appeared cool all the way around Erin Hills on Sunday, hitting massive drives, with all but two finding the wide fairways. He led the championship in greens hit (62 of 72) and finished fourth in fairways hit (49 of 56), a solid formula for winning a USGA championship.

“He’d been knocking on the door for a while,” said good friend Justin Thomas, who tied for ninth after shooting 75 a day after his U.S. Open record-tying 63. “I felt he's been very unnoticed and maybe not respected as much as he should have for his record. He's played so well in the majors and played great in the [2016] Ryder Cup. It's crazy to think that this is only his second [PGA Tour-sanctioned] win. When he's on, there are not many people in the world better.”

Koepka, who resembles a linebacker in build, prefers to be called an athlete rather than a golfer. He told ESPN’s Ian O’Connor earlier this week that pitching in Game 7 of the World Series or running the court with LeBron James or Stephen Curry is something he often dreamed about.

His father, Bob, was a pitcher at West Virginia Wesleyan, and his great-uncle, Dick Groat, was an All-American basketball player at Duke University who later won the 1960 National League Most Valuable Player Award while playing shortstop for the World Series-champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Koepka himself was a good baseball player growing up, but he eventually gravitated to golf. Lightly recruited out of high school, he played four seasons at Florida State before turning professional five years ago.

But he didn’t take the conventional route to stardom. He went overseas and competed on the European Challenge Tour, where he won four times, and later the PGA European Tour, becoming the circuit’s rookie of the year in 2014 after finishing eighth in the Race to Dubai and winning in Turkey. He joined the PGA Tour full time in 2015, winning the Waste Management Open. A year later, he played on the victorious USA Ryder Cup Team at Hazeltine National.

The only thing missing was a major title. He tied for fourth in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, 10 strokes back of runaway winner Martin Kaymer. He added top-10 finishes in the 2015 Open Championship at St. Andrews (T-10) and PGA Championship at Whistling Straits (T-5) before tying for fourth last year in the PGA Championship at Baltusrol. Although he hasn’t won during the 2016-17 PGA Tour season, Koepka does have two runner-up finishes (Shriners Open and Valero Texas Open) and a tie for fifth with his younger brother, Chase, in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

“I kept telling people last year after the Ryder Cup, when Brooks figures out how good he is, he's going to be a world-beater,” said Brandt Snedeker, who tied for ninth (8-under 280).

Perhaps all he needed was the right venue. Erin Hills, with its generous fairways, definitely fit Koepka’s game.

This past Tuesday, Koepka had a good conversation with swing coaches Claude Harmon and Pete Cowen about being patient. Some felt Koepka had underachieved, despite being in just his third full season on the PGA Tour.

That won’t be an issue anymore.

“I thought I needed to win multiple times and a major,” said Koepka. “I’m sure someone heard me say that. I thought the way my game set up, I think I can win multiple times a year, I really do. And I think this is hopefully major number one and there's many more to come.”

Koepka’s father wasn’t on property to enjoy this special victory, and Brooks said he didn’t send a Father’s Day card. Maybe showing off the trophy where his name is etched with some of the game’s greatest players will be a nice substitute.

“To win my first major in the United States is pretty special,” said Koepka. “It is Father's Day, so hopefully… this [trophy] works.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.