ERIN, Wis. – No, Dustin Johnson didn’t defend his U.S. Open title on Sunday. In fact, the game’s No. 1-ranked player didn’t even qualify for the weekend rounds at Erin Hills.
But Brooks Koepka did win, and he might well be a reincarnation of Johnson. They are close friends. They play lots of practice rounds together, and they frequently dine together on the road.
On Saturday night Johnson called Koepka.
“It was probably not that interesting,’’ said Koepka. “For us it was a long conversation – about two minutes. We played a practice round here on Tuesday, and he basically just said `you’re good enough to win.’’
And he was.
Koepka, 27, played just like Johnson does when he’s on his game. He dominated the final round of the 117th playing of America’s national championship and tied the tournament record for lowest 72-hole score in relation to par. He posted 16-under 272 after a 67 on Sunday and won by four strokes over third-round leader Brian Harman and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.
Veteran tour player Bill Haas, who had his best-ever finish in the Open with a tie for fifth, was quick to compare Koepka with Johnson.
“He’s just really impressive physically,’’ said Haas. “He just pounds the ball and he hits it very straight. He’s got a lot of Dustin Johnson in him, and he’s going to overpower golf courses. He’s got a great demeanor. Just like Dustin, nothing seems to bother them.’’
Koepka started the day one stroke behind Harman and tied with Justin Thomas and Tommy Fleetwood. Thomas, paired with Harman in the last twosome, struggled after his record 63 round of Saturday and finished in a tie for ninth. Fleetwood, paired with Koepka, was solo fourth.
A birdie-birdie start put Koepka into the lead and he protected it the rest of the way. Matsuyama, playing six groups in front of Koepka, shot the day’s low round of 66 and his 12-under score was the target that Koepka needed to beat with five holes left in his round. He did it with birdies of Nos. 14, 15 and 16 and two closing pars.
The one thing that eluded him was sole possession of the tournament 72-hole scoring record in relation to par. He could only match the standard set by Rory McIlroy at Congressional in 2011. Still, Koepka had only one three-putt in the heat of Sunday’s final round and he missed only 10 greens in regulation all week.
“That’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced and to do it on Father’s Day is pretty neat,’’ said Koepka. `I didn’t exactly get my dad a card, so I hope this works. This is probably the first major that anyone in my family missed. I don’t know if that’s saying anything.’’
Well, it does suggest that Koepka can take care of himself, as he did immediately after making an unusual decision to start his professional career. After playing collegiately at Florida State he turned pro in 2012. Rather than compete for a spot on one of the PGA tours Koepka opted to start in Europe. Few American players do that, but for Koepka it worked.
He won four times on the European Challenge Tour, then once on the European Tour and once in Japan. His U.S. Open title came after only one win on the PGA Tour.
“I have felt like I’m an under-achiever because I tried so hard to win. I felt like I should be winning more,’’ he said. “I needed to stay patient and not get ahead of myself.’’
For 72 holes at a new U.S. Open venue he was able to do that, and the emotions showed on his cart ride from the 18th green to the scoring tent.
“I played real solid from the moment I got here,’’ said Koepka, “but that was probably the most emotion I have ever showed.’’