Koepka Again, As Shinnecock Course Takes Center Stage

Rory McIlroy by Gordon M. Grant.

The U.S. Open began on Thursday, but it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that the game of golf took center stage.

Until then the story lines included the weather, a Phil Mickelson meltdown of epic proportions, the condition of the golf course, and of course, the early departure of Tiger Woods, along with many of the other game’s marquee players.

And oh yeah, it was played down the block at good old Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton.

“Black Thursday” set the tone. A whipping wind on a course devoid of trees sent the best-meant shots flying off cock-eyed. The greens, dried from the wind, became unglued as putts rolled hither and yon.

By the end of the second round, most of the world’s golfers had succumbed to what turned out to be the hardest test in the history of the tournament, including Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, and Jason Day.

Phil Mickelson by Gordon M. Grant.

One exception was the world’s number-one ranked player Dustin (DJ) Johnson, who rolled along, oftentimes the only player in the entire field under par. In fact, Johnson was looking like a runaway winner as he opened up a three-stroke lead Saturday at three under par.

By Sunday, all that was out the window. Peter Berger and Tony Finau played early on Saturday and carded twin 66s. They were in the clubhouse, perhaps sipping beers and bemoaning their fate, tied for 45th place. One by one, though, the players ahead of them, stymied by dried greens and unconventional hole placings, began to implode. By day’s end, Finau and Berger were tied with Johnson and last year’s Open winner, Brooks Koepka, for first place, all at three over par.

Johnson had given back seven strokes in the midday swirl. “I thought I played pretty well,” he said matter-of-factly.

Sunday, there were 37 players within seven shots of each other, when the leaders took to the course. Miraculously, the greens had been restored to life overnight by the grounds crew.

One player who is not a superstar but is getting there fast is Patrick Reed, who won the Masters in April and was looking for the second leg of the Grand Slam. He mastered the early afternoon wind and marched up the leaderboard, recoding four birdies in his first six holes. Tommy Fleetwood, the Englishman with the sweet stroke and steady hand, was nine strokes over when he made an extended and, as it turned out, historic run. Justin Rose, who ranks among the world’s best, was right there as well.

Dustin Johnson by Gordon M. Grant.

It was a melee, a donnybrook. One of the world’s most prestigious trophies was there for the taking. All that was needed was for a player to master a whipping wind and a bucking golf course that, like a wild-eyed bronco, seemed to have a will all its own.

Koepka and Reed were tied after six at one over, with Fleetwood and Johnson one stroke behind them. Fleetwood, nine over coming into Sunday, was flirting with destiny.

And he went out in style, dropping an approach to 10 feet and settled for a par, tying the lowest score in Open history with a 63, and finished with a two-over 282. Still, he missed two birdie putts at the end that would have given him the record and, as it turned out, the championship. “It was amazing,” he said. “The [last] putt, I started on the line I wanted to.” His goal: “I’m getting close to winning a Major.” Fleetwood, 27, would have an agonizing wait in the clubhouse as the leaders turned for home, two hours away.

He would have the luxury of sitting in the clubhouse while the others banged away at one another. If the weather deteriorated in the late afternoon as it did on Thursday and Saturday, Fleetwood would have been the likely winner.

Tiger Woods by Gordon M. Grant.

Instead, the wind settled down and Koepka was playing fearlessly and kept his nose in front as they came around the clubhouse turn.

But he made a mistake on the 12th, missing a routine six-footer for birdie. He converted his second putt, though, staying at one over, a stroke better than Fleetwood in the clubhouse and two ahead of his playing partner, Johnson.

Reed and the ever-present Berger and Finau were at four over, lurking. Suddenly, a momentum change: Koepka drove into heavy fescue and had to layup 67 yards in the front of the green. Reed meanwhile, on 15, rolled in a 22-footer to drop to three over. Koepka righted himself to make par and remain one over, but Johnson three-putted from 73-feet and fell into fourth before birdying the 15th.

Koepka proved his championship meddle by dropping his approach shot on the 16th, four feet from the pin after Johnson landed 15 feet way. Koepka converted the birdie and Johnson didn’t. The two-stroke cushion proved insurmountable.

Koepka, 28, joined Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange as the only two golfers to win the Open in consecutive years. His one over par 281 was one of the highest scores ever recorded in a major.

Saturday, Koepka was seven over at one point. “I told myself to just keep going. I was hitting well and putting well. I needed to keep grinding,” he said.

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