By David Zakhodin
To say that this year’s U.S. Open championship was unique would be a massive understatement. Nearly every year we’re used to seeing the year’s second Major be nothing but attrition for the world’s best golfers. Low scores are few and far between, and leaderboards typically do not feature the young and inexperienced. Leading up to Erin Hills, all the conversation surrounding golf revolved around the unknown presented by a brand new tournament venue that featured uncharacteristically long hole lengths and promised to wreak havoc in the event of wind. And after all that talk and speculation, nothing could have been further from the truth.
The 117th U.S. Open was truly a landmark chapter in golf’s history. Brooks Koepka tied Rory McIlroy’s 16-under record for a U.S. Open champion, and Justin Thomas tied Johnny Miller’s long-standing record of shooting a round of 63. But with Erin Hills being a par-72 course, Thomas set the record for lowest single round ever of 9-under. While he ultimately could not back up that performance on Sunday and hold off the likes of Koepka, Brian Harman, Hideki Matsuyama, and Tommy Fleetwood, Thomas’ performance on Saturday was indicative of his future potential and nothing short of remarkable at a tournament where such numbers are unheard of.
So low were the scores throughout these four days that some of golf’s brightest minds took to criticize the new course. Even though noteworthy former golfers like Darren Clarke, Paul Azinger, and Curtis Strange seemed to enjoy broadcasting what transpired on FOX, the Golf Channel crew took the traditionalist route. They outlined the alleged flaw in a forgiving U.S. Open course with wide fairways that allowed golfers to swing away and compensate for the course’s unprecedented length. After hearing both arguments, I am inclined to believe that the U.S. Open may not be coming back to Erin Hills in the next decade because of the likely number of USGA higher-ups who did not appreciate how this tournament deviated from the norm. But irrespective of how the course played, all credit must be given to all the golfers, especially Brooks Koepka, for putting up record-setting low scores and making the championship an enjoyable experience for viewers who may have been disappointed by the absence of the Big Four in contention.
If there’s one thing that did not change after four days of golf in Wisconsin, it was the fact that the Big Four cannot seem to get a hold of their bearings at the Majors. For Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, and Jason Day to all miss the cut is nothing short of indefensible. When Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray took some of the wind out of the Australian Open’s sails by losing early this January, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal stepped up to produce a thrilling finish to the tournament. When three of the Big Four miss the cut on golf’s biggest stage, what does Jordan Spieth do? He performs underwhelmingly in rounds three and four and fails to even make an impact on the tournament. In fact, Spieth seemed to be in that sort of cranky mood we’ve become accustomed to seeing where he’s perpetually talking sarcastically to either himself or his caddy in response to not playing his best. We tout Jordan’s short game, but it seems he created an ample amount of birdie opportunities and yet misread so many putts.
The final hope for a big name winning the U.S. Open came down to Rickie Fowler, someone who looked like a great pick following an electric first round performance and sitting only two shots back prior to the start of play on Sunday. As has unfortunately been the trend for Rickie at the U.S. Open, he failed to shoot a final round under-par and once again came up short in his quest for a first Major title. With Rickie, arguably the best active player to not have won a Major, and the Big Four struggling to find their form, we can only wonder when this squad gets off the schneid. The month in between this event and The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale should give each golfer time to regroup and refocus mentally, but the hot streak of seven consecutive first-time winners is certainly a large enough sample size to predict the Claret Jug being raised next month by a man who has yet to experience Major glory. Even though Rickie would have been a first-timer had he won at Erin Hills, the fact that he has been so close to previously winning Majors coupled with a still strong fifth place finish this weekend is what makes his journey so frustrating to the fans who love rooting for the Oklahoma State orange on Sundays.
In spite of what could have easily been called a U.S. Open letdown in terms of the lack of widespread “difficulty” in the course and the absence of many top ten ranked golfers in contention, many other U.S. Open traditions held to form. For the second consecutive year, the tournament was won by a first-time winner. All the more ironic that Brooks Koepka followed in the footsteps of his good friend Dustin Johnson as U.S. Open champion. As is always the case, a gorgeous lady greeted the new Major champion and rode the cart with Brooks from the 18th green to the clubhouse. Hats off to Joe Buck for confusing her name with Brooks’ ex girlfriend and then being awkwardly corrected several minutes later (you know he’ll get defensive about it, too).
Thankfully, this year’s U.S. Open was not clouded with an errant USGA mis-interpretation of the rules. It was, however, defined by the battle that first-time Major contenders have with their nerves. While it does not require a hot take on First Take or Undisputed to conclude that Brooks Koepka handled his nerves the best, what is increasingly apparent is that the common theme of this streak of winners is their ability to remain calm in the face of life-changing moments. Whether it was Sergio’s bounce-back following the missed putt at 18, Jimmy Walker staying clear of Jason Day, or DJ refusing to be distracted by his stroke penalty, many of these champions won without showing a great deal of emotion during the round itself. Brooks Koepka was no different. We knew Brian Harman wasn’t going to win since a lefty has never previously accomplished this feat at the U.S. Open. We knew Hideki Matsuyama’s impressive performance on the back-nine was maybe too little, too late. But Brooks’ poise during the last nine holes where he saved par on two consecutive holes before extending his lead is what won him his first Major at the young age of 27 (in golf terms). Even as he holed the last putt, Brooks did not squat and pump the air with his putter. Neither did he jump for joy in the clubhouse as the last pairing walked off the final hole. Rather, it was the “chill” manner of acting like he had been there before coupled with his long drives and fantastic iron play that won Brooks this tournament.
When we talk about being there before, we can look back on the invaluable Ryder Cup experience that exposed him to a previously unknown level of pressure toward the end of last season. We saw Brooks falter several months prior to the Ryder Cup when he briefly led during the fourth round of the PGA Championship at Baltusrol last July. Now having both that tournament and the Ryder Cup under his belt, Brooks made further progress this year (for a player who had been ranked outside the Top 20) with his Tied for 11th finish at The Masters and Tied for 16th showing at The Players. The player many may have predicted to emerge victorious as a result of his performance under pressure at the Ryder Cup is Patrick Reed. And while his time will surely come at one of these future events, Brooks Koepka was the man who grabbed the reigns of the final round and never let go. Representing both the Seminoles and his hometown of West Palm Beach, Brooks continued the three-year streak of Floridians (Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson) winning Major championships. So while the 117th U.S. Open did not feature any Big Four dominance or the much anticipated rise of Rickie Fowler, it produced yet another battle-tested warrior who hardly blinked throughout the course of 72 holes of golf. Not until the cart drove around what used to be a cattle farm did the moment overcome Brooks Koepka, the deserving conqueror of one of golf’s biggest stages. The narrative of consecutive first-time Major champions may be all too familiar these days, but the likes of Brooks Koepka are seizing the opportunity and forging their own spots in golf’s illustrious history.