ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Six weeks ago on Sunday, Brooks Koepka did not sleep. He had brooding to do and demons to chase. After everything – the ghastly knee injury, the agony of unfulfilled ambition, the taunts and the splenetic rift in professional golf that he helped personify – he rallied to a Masters Tournament lead, and then he fizzled. Collapsed, really.
He ultimately vowed, he recalled over the weekend at the Oak Hill Country Club, never to “think the way I thought going into the final round.” On Sunday evening, Koepka found his vindication: a two-stroke win at the PGA Championship, earning him his first major tournament trophy since 2019. It was Koepka’s fifth career major victory, tying him with figures like Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson.
“I think this one is probably the most meaningful of them all with everything that’s gone on, all the crazy stuff over the last few years,” said Koepka, who said that he had received about 600 text messages by the time he held a news conference. “But it feels good to be back and to get No. 5.”
The victory made him the first member of LIV Golf, the year-old breakaway league bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, to win a major title since joining the circuit. And while Koepka’s triumph at Oak Hill may do little to stanch some of the criticisms of LIV – its ties to a repressive government, its disputed intentions, its gleeful instigation of a financial arms race in an ancient sport – it definitively ended the wrangling over whether men who play a smattering of 54-hole tournaments can prevail on golf’s grandest, 72-hole stages.
“I definitely think it helps LIV,” Koepka said, “but I’m more interested in my own self right now, to be honest with you.”
Fair enough, for he silenced the notion, one that seemed a little more off-the-mark after the Masters, that his contending days were done by carding a three-under-par 67 on Sunday, taking him to 9 under for the tournament. But this is a 33-year-old player whose results in 2022’s major season looked like this: missed cut, tie for 55th, solo 55th, missed cut. It had been easy to forget that in 2021, the sequence went like this: missed cut, tie for second, tie for fourth, tie for sixth.
By the end of last year, he had a mounting hunch that his recovery was nearly done and that he could, finally, be relevant again. Around January, he has said, he was certain of it.
“He is back to being healthy,” said Cameron Smith, who won the British Open last summer and then joined LIV later in the year. “I think that brings a little bit of internal confidence as well being out there and just being able to do your stuff.”
It did not look that way as recently as Thursday, when the prospect that Koepka would outlast a swarm of stars seemed closer to impossible than even improbable. He opened this tournament with a 2-over-par 72 and, by his own account, was out of sorts and struggling to strike the ball as he wished. He could not remember, he said, the last time he had hit so poorly.
But he was not that far behind because the tournament, the first major played at Oak Hill since a sweeping effort to restore some of the daunting tests that characterize Donald J. Ross-designed courses, emerged as one of the most fearsome PGA Championships in recent decades, often evoking the rigors of the 2008 competition at Oakland Hills in Michigan. Of the 156 players who competed this past week, only 11 finished below par – a departure from 2013, when 21 players finished in the red at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
The stinginess came even with the course, with its perilous rough and humbling bunkers, being more accommodating on Sunday than it had been earlier. Smith, Cam Davis, Kurt Kitayama and Sepp Straka all shot 65s on Sunday, running them high up the leaderboard. Patrick Cantlay, who made one of the tournament’s scarce eagles, signed for a 66. Michael Block, whose day job is being the head pro at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club southeast of Los Angeles, had a hole in one at No. 15, the first PGA Championship ace by a club professional since 1996.
But much of the focus on Sunday was on Koepka; Viktor Hovland, the budding Norwegian talent; and Scottie Scheffler, the No. 2 player in the Official World Golf Ranking. Koepka, his standing shriveled because of his lucrative ties to LIV, whose tournaments are not accredited in the ranking system, entered Sunday at No. 44. (The PGA of America, which organized this tournament, is distinct from the PGA Tour, LIV’s rival.)
Koepka stepped into the first tee box with a one-stroke lead and doubled his margin in short order when he made a birdie at the second hole. He had played the hole to par the first three days, always reaching the green in two shots but leaving himself with long putts. On Sunday, with the pin at the front-right of the green, he needed less than 5 feet.
His birdie putt at the third hole required even less, after his longest tee shot of the tournament at the hole known as Vista, moving his advantage to three stokes.
The sixth hole, a threat to so many players throughout the tournament, loomed. Koepka had survived the hole, a par-4 challenge that the field finished in an average of 4.52 strokes, well enough on Thursday, Friday and Saturday: par in each of the first three rounds. On Sunday, though, his tee shot rocketed rightward into a thick grass in the so-called native area. He took a drop and then, about 191 yards from the hole, struck it onto the green and eventually escaped with a bogey. Although Koepka followed with another bogey, Hovland also stumbled at No. 7.
At the turn, Koepka led Hovland by a lone stroke. Scheffler, a steady-voiced sensation since he won last year’s Masters, and Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open winner, were three off the lead.
Koepka answered with a tantalizing streak: birdie, bogey, birdie. Hovland had a chance for birdie at the 12th hole, but his tap from nearly 15 feet edged just left of the cup. With six holes to play, Koepka’s advantage was back to two strokes. Two holes later, it was down to one.
But at nearly every major, there comes a moment when one man’s victory appears inevitable. It may not be mathematically buttoned-up yet, but almost everyone knows that the tournament is finished before it actually ends.
On Sunday, the scene for that moment was the 16th hole. It had not been the most hellish at Oak Hill, not by far. Hovland will remember it, though.
His ball in a bunker after his tee shot, he wielded his 9-iron. With less than 175 yards to the hole, he swung and blasted his ball – not onto the green, but into the bunker’s lip. His fourth shot reached the green. A bogey putt missed, leaving him with a double bogey. Koepka, in the twilight of his pursuit for his third PGA Championship victory, made a birdie to lay claim to a four-stroke lead.
“It’s not easy going toe-to-toe with a guy like that,” Hovland, who finished in the top seven for his third consecutive major, said of his duel with Koepka. “He is not going to give you anything, and I didn’t really feel like I gave him anything either until 16.”
Scheffler made a birdie putt at the 18th green soon after to narrow Koepka’s path. Koepka himself narrowed it further with a bogey at No. 17.
He arrived at the 18th hole, which was playing 497 yards on Sunday, with two shots to spare. He tee shot soared and then thumped into the fairway, stopping at 318 yards. The towering grandstands waited in the distance, filled with spectators, as the fairway-lined galleries were, looking to see whether, after everything, Koepka was indeed back.
His next swing lifted the ball onto the green. The applause was rising, seemingly with every step in his march up the steep incline, the kind of incline that would have felt Everest-like to Koepka in the recent past. He knelt – there had been times, he said, when he could not so much as bend his knee – and then approached the ball. He steadied himself and tapped the ball forward.
It stopped, according to tournament officials, about 3 inches short.
He flashed a tight smile, as if to say that, of course, there would be one last hiccup.
He tried again. The ball fell into the cup. He pumped his fist and then embraced his caddie for nearly nine seconds.
Indeed, after everything, Koepka was back.