KOEPKA DENIES FAST-FINISHING FLEETWOOD AT US OPEN
America’s Brooks Koepka became only the seventh player in history to retain the US Open title after holding off the fast-finishing Tommy Fleetwood at the controversially set-up Shinnecock Hills
There is more than one way to skin a cat. And there is more than one way to win a US Open. Brooks Koepka has proved that.
Twelve months ago, at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, the then 27-year-old American matched the record-equalling low score of 16 under par to take the title in barnstorming fashion by four shots. Returning as defending champion, but with low expectations, following a wrist injury that had plagued the early part of the season, Koepka took a different approach at the fiendishly difficult Shinnecock Hills.
Showing the kind of discipline and unflappability that so many of his more highly-touted rivals failed to manage, Koepka calmly went about his business over the four very challenging days of the tournament, defending when he needed to defend, and attacking with precision and poise when the moment demanded.
Widely-regarded as one of the new generation of ‘bomb and gouge’ type of players, who hit the ball miles and then hope to get up and down with a wedge, Koepka showed that he has a great deal more subtlety and versatility to his game than that. Finding fairway after fairway, often with irons, he found the right spots on the greens and was nerveless with the putter, holing out from mid-range with increasing monotony, and scrambling pars while others were making bogeys, and, in many cases, much worse scores.
With the last group out on Sunday, Tony Finau and Daniel Berger, almost there by default following Saturday 66s achieved in the easiest of the conditions, all eyes soon turned on the penultimate pairing of Koepka and Dustin Johnson. It would have been easy for Koepka to have succumbed to a match-play situation, and tried to out-power the world No.1, but he chose to play his own game, and it paid off in spades.
However, both players, and, indeed, all but his biggest fans, had ruled out one other factor – Tommy Fleetwood. The 27-year-old from Southport made the world sit up and take notice at Erin Hills 12 months ago, when he finished fourth and went on to be crowned Europe’s No.1 player five months later. However, Fleetwood’s chances of a first major victory looked beyond slim when he teed off at 12.01 on Sunday afternoon, with his 54-hole score of nine over par placing him 23 players behind the top of the leaderboard.
But five or so hours later, Fleetwood was sitting in the scorer’s hut having shot a seven-under-par 63, and taken the clubhouse lead on two over, a total that many observers thought would be enough to take the title, given the severity of the back nine. Eight birdies and a single bogey added up to a history-equalling score for the US Open, and were it not for lipping out at the last from eight feet for a 62, Fleetwood may well have been the one with the trophy on his shelf and a cheque for $2.1m in his back pocket.
However, it was not to be, and the brave Englishman’s bid for a maiden major title came up agonisingly short, as Koepka, who, despite a slight wobble on his approach to 18, closed out his second US Open title with a 68 for a one-over-par total, and followed in the footsteps of Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange as the only back-to-back champions since the second world war.
Johnson, who held a four-shot lead at the halfway mark, and was one of four co-leaders at the start of the final day, delivered the kind of wasteful putting performance which also undermined his US Open dream at Chambers Bay in 2015. The world No.1 finished third at plus three on account of a 70.
Masters champion Patrick Reed had fuelled prospects of keeping his grand slam hopes alive when he played his first seven holes in five under par, but dropped shots at the ninth, 11th and 12th saw the hero of Augusta finish with a 68 and fourth place, one ahead of Finau. England’s Tyrrell Hatton made a bold move on Sunday with a closing 69 to share sixth with Berger, Henrik Stenson and Xander Schauffele.
While Koepka deserves all the plaudits for his gutsy display, the brickbats at the 118th US Open certainly deserve to be handed out to the United States Golf Association, organisers of the tournament, who so clearly and culpably mis-read the state of the course, and the weather, when setting up the pin positions for the first three days.
With the wind gusting up to 25mph on the opening day, the already quick greens soon turned into skating rinks, and with flags placed on ridges and many virtually inaccessible locations, at times it made the world’s best players look like weekend hackers. Rory McIlroy and Jason Day both ended their hopes on day one, with rounds of 80 and 79 respectively, while 2016 Amateur champion Scott Gregory propped up the scoreboard with rounds of 92 and 75 for a 27-over-par total for 36 holes.
Of course, major golf is not meant to be easy, but there’s hard and there’s unplayable, and at many times during the course of the three rounds, Shinnecock Hills was almost unplayable. Wounded by fierce criticism, the USGA loosened the shackles for the closing day, resulting in a dramatic shift in scoring patterns, which hardly pointed towards a planning masterclass.
That was certainly the view of Phil Mickelson, after what will surely go down as one of the most bizarre moments in Major history on Saturday afternoon. Reaching the green of the par-four 13thhole in three shots, the left-hander had an 18-foot putt for par. His attempt rolled past the hole, and then gathered speed as it headed back towards to front of the sloping green. Mickelson picked up the pace too, running across the green, and, while the ball was still rolling, hit it back towards the cup to audible gasps from the crowd.
His playing partner, Andrew Johnston, started laughing, and Mickelson himself had a wry smile on his face as he marked a 10 on his card – eight shots, plus the two-stroke penalty for hitting a moving ball – and moving on to the next tee.
After the round, an 11-over-par 81, Mickelson made light of the incident, saying that he was merely making use of his knowledge of the rules to try to end the agony of going ‘back and forth’, but others said that it deserved a harsher punishment, even disqualification, for having deliberately deflected the ball, as well as going against the spirit of the game. The USGA were having none of it, however, and deemed it within the rules, and no further action was taken. Mickelson came back on Sunday and shot a 69 to finish, but, not surprisingly, chose not to hang about for any post-round interviews.
So that was the 2018 US Open – thrills, yes, but mainly spills, and a brave victory from a fast-maturing big-game performer who looks destined to add more silverware to his cabinet before his race has run. The USGA, on the other hand, still has much to learn.
US OPEN LEADERBOARD (TOP 10)
Pos Player Par 1 2 3 4 Total
1 Koepka +1 75 66 72 68 281
2 Fleetwood +2 75 66 78 63 282
3 Johnson +3 69 67 77 70 283
4 Reed +4 73 72 71 68 284
5 Finau +5 75 72 66 72 285
T6 Berger +6 76 71 66 73 286
T6 Hatton +6 75 70 72 69 286
T6 Schauffele +6 72 74 72 68 286
T6 Stenson +6 71 70 74 71 286
T10 Rose +7 71 70 73 73 287
T10 Simpson +7 76 71 71 69 287