ERIN, WIS. — It wasn’t the Olympic Club or Pebble Beach, sites of history. It was Erin Hills, derisively nicknamed “Errant Hills.” But if the course wasn’t memorable, a place scraped from Wisconsin pastureland, the game Brooks Koepka played there definitely was.
A 27-year-old who literally became a golfer by accident — a car crash when he was a boy kept him from playing contact sports — Koepka on Sunday won America’s golfing championship, the U.S. Open, in a record-tying performance.
After a brilliant final-round of five-under 67, his 72-hole score of 16-under 272 equaled the lowest total ever recorded in relation to par, equaling the mark set six years ago by a golfer more famous but perhaps no less talented than Koepka, Rory McIlroy.
Koepka is a big man, 6-feet, 186 pounds, who looks like an athlete and would much prefer to be knocking balls over fences as a ballplayer than knocking them down fairways as a touring pro. The former major leaguer Dick Groat is a great uncle.
“If I could do it again, I’d play baseball — 100 percent no doubt,” he told Jaime Diaz of Golf Digest. Then again, he said that before becoming the seventh straight player to be a first-time major champion, following by two months Sergio Garcia, who in April took the Masters.
What Johnson said after winning the Open by four strokes over Hideki Matsuyama and Brian Harman, whom tied for second at 276, said was he felt confident throughout the week.
Matsuyama closed with the day’s best round a 66, while Harman, who held the third-round lead by a shot, had an even-par 72. Justin Thomas, who Saturday shot a 63, which at nine-under was the lowest Open round ever in relation to par, not unexpectedly wobbled to a 75 on Sunday. It’s almost impossible to follow one brilliant round with another.
Koepka (pronounced Kep-ka) practices and works out with last year’s Open winner, Dustin Johnson. A native of Florida, Koepka was in a car crash when he was 10, and his nose and sinus cavity were fractured on the dashboard. For the entire summer, he couldn’t play any contact sports. He began golf, and although not terribly impressive as a junior, earned a scholarship to Florida State.
Turning pro in 2012, he missed qualifying for the PGA Tour, so went to Europe, winning over there. One of his first events back in the U.S. was the 2014 Frys Open at Silverado Country Club in Napa, where he finished eighth.
Koepka was his unemotional self after the Open victory. There were no leaps like Phil Mickelson after he won the Masters. No hugs like those from Tiger Woods. Rather, there was just a taciturn stroll off the 18th green.
“I don’t know what to say right now,” were his first words to TV commentator Curtis Strange, himself a two-time Open champ.
“It was bombs away on these fairways,” said Koepka of his big drives. “The fairways are generous enough so when I missed shots, I still hit the fairways. And the way I putted this week was unbelievable.”
He did have a chance to get to 17-under, just short of the green on the par-five 18th in two shots, but he couldn’t chip close enough to make the birdie four.
“I really should have made that up and down at 18,” he said before laughing. “But tying the record? That’s awesome. I think that’s really cool. It hasn’t sunk in obviously, yet, and probably won’t for a few days.
After all, Erin Hills is in the rear view mirror, maybe forever.