FARMINGDALE, NY — After Jordan Spieth shook hands with Brooks Koepka at 2:50 p.m. on Saturday afternoon on the first tee box at Bethpage Black, he walked off to the side and pulled out a pen. Somebody next to me remarked, “He’s signing his last will and testament.”
Brooks Koepka didn’t vaporize him into oblivion as some thought he might, but he did hold his closest competitor — both literally and figuratively — at bay with an even-par 70 to Spieth’s 72 and maintained a seven-stroke lead on second place going into the final round of the second major of 2019.
It wasn’t as pretty as it was over the first two days when Koepka fired 63 and 65 consecutively, but it didn’t need to be. Bethpage roughed up a collection of 82 of the best golfers in the world, and Koepka still gained strokes on the field average of 72.3. The scary part? He putted terribly on Saturday and is just better than field average for the week with that club.
After making two birdies in his first five holes, Koepka made bogey on the par-4 ninth by missing a 2-foot putt. He followed that with a bogey at the tough 10th, and though nobody was within five of his score, the wheels got a bit wobbly. He righted the ship with a birdie at No. 13 and nearly ended a week of festivities with a birdie bid at the 15th. It came up short, and he bogeyed the 16th to fall back to even on the day, where he finished. He’s seven clear of Dustin Johnson, Harold Varner III, Luke List and Jazz Janewattananond.
He’s going to cruise to his fourth major championship on Sunday and make all kinds of history in the process. Here’s what’s at stake.
He’s going to cruise because the way he’s doing it is sustainable. He’s not putting out of his mind, but instead he’s hitting the hell out of it from tee to green. This is what he does at majors. Koepka has gained 17 (!) strokes on the field from tee to green. That’s almost three times better than the 10th-best golfer in the field from tee to green. Part of the reason for this is that he’s so long and so strong that even when he misses fairways — just 15 times in 42 drives — he has a much easier time getting his ball way up in the air to Bethpage’s elevated greens. Koepka leads the field in greens in regulation and has no plans on changing his pin-seeking ways.
“I’d love to force it on the field and I can make it where it’s as big as a lead as I possibly can get,” Koepka said. “I mean, it would be nice to be able to make a 10 on the last hole and be OK. But I’m just playing to play good golf, and wherever that puts me, I’ll be satisfied if I just go play one more good round.”
The thing that’s been striking about Koepka this week — that’s always striking about his major championship performances — is that he seems to have a preternatural ability to treat majors the way everybody else says they want to. That is, just like any other tournament. Because he’s so good and so long and so mentally stable, major wins seem to get in the way of his efforts instead of the other way around.
“I mean, obviously to win would be great,” Koepka said. “It is just another day of work for me. You know, come out here, practice, get here an hour and a half early, beat balls for an hour and hopefully get out there and play under a five-hour round and play solid.
“If you start treating tomorrow’s round differently than every other round, I feel like that’s where I would maybe be nervous … I’m not superstitious or anything, but you start worrying about this, worrying about that. It’s just like any other round I’ve ever played. It’s 18 holes. Try to hit the fairway. Try to hit the green and try to make birdie.”
You may not believe Sunday is a coronation quite yet. But what about Jordan Spieth’s meltdown in 2016? But what about Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters? Did you see Jean Van de Velde? To those concerns I give you Matt Wallace, who is 4 under on the week and T6, but eight back of Koepka. He played the part of Colin Montgomerie on Saturday at Bethpage with Brooks assuming the Tiger Woods slot.
“He’s a good golfer, isn’t he,” Wallace said. “That’s pretty much plain and simple. When you’ve got the ball under control like he does and he’s chipping and putting and everything’s perfect, that kind of happens. Tiger did it. I remember Monty saying, ‘nobody was ever going to catch Tiger at that Masters that he won,’ and this is pretty much the same.”
Koepka’s office on Sunday will be a four-hour parade around a state park on Long Island. The good people of New York will shower him with praise and tomahawk chop chants and probably some Michelob Ultra. His heart rate won’t change, and neither will his demeanor. Until he strolls up No. 18, makes his final putt and grabs a second Wanamaker for a now-growing collection. He’ll grin for a minute and he’ll flex for a bit, and the people will laud their champ. And then he’ll be off to the next one — and potentially a fifth one — in just one month at Pebble Beach.