PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — It all seemed so apropos. Brooks Koepka, talker of all the trash and keeper of all the kingdoms, collecting Pebble Beach and adding it to his growing collection of territories conquered. The way it started, it certainly seemed as if that was the way it was going to finish.
Koepka came out of the blocks Sunday like Tyson Gay, ripped up and shot out. The second the starter’s bullet hit the air, Koepka went birdie, miracle par, birdie and this linksland quivered at the idea that the man who bags U.S. Opens the way a Safeway checker bags broccoli could go even lower than anyone has all week.
Before Koepka, 9 under at the time, rolled in his second of three straight birdies on the fourth hole, the girl keeping his score on the plastic sign with the metal pole pulled a “1” and a “0.” She knew. He knew. We all knew. He moved from 9 under to 10, and then he pushed it to 11 with another birdie at the fifth.
Koepka’s an all-timer already, but this was outrageous even by Koepkian standards.
There is an obvious symmetry to what Koepka was trying to do this week. Less than 200 miles separated this tournament from a basketball team that plays its home games in Oakland. That dynasty fell on Thursday evening shortly after Koepka shot 69 in Round 1, and while that fall was somewhat more notorious than this one, the lesson remains the same: If winning one is historic and two in a row is legendary, taking three straight may be close to impossible. And yet, only the most bizarre, outlandish circumstances kept each three-peat from happening.
Koepka hit one of his few poor shots on the par-5 6th. It led to par on a birdie hole. Come the 7th and then the 8th, the tournament started to coil a bit. And any time a major starts to coil, the result is always chaotic.
Standing out over the knob that holds both the 7th green and 8th tee, it was hard to ignore the noise even if nobody in recent memory is better at ignoring it than this four-time major winner. The Goodyear Blimp loudly hovered. A television drone boxed everyone in. A plane pulling a sign for Bubba’s Burgers — possibly piloted by Bubba Watson, who missed the cut — flew overhead. Two lunatics paddleboarded in the Pacific Ocean, one without a shirt. Koepka bogeyed the 8th.
The back-to-back defending champion played the next two holes even and birdied the 11th after a sendoff from the far corner of the course. A gaggle of fans who sat in the window ledges of a house between the 11th tee and the Pacific Ocean — that surely cost more than the $12.5 million U.S. Open purse — hollered at him and urged on their king. It would be his last birdie of the day.
Koepka remains unfazed by anything and everything that happens on a golf course — no matter the event, no matter the round. Once inland, the noise died down. This major didn’t always feel like a major because Koepka plays it like it’s the first round of a charity event in mid-December. While one stroke down on the 12th tee with a 114-year record of three consecutive national titles hanging in the balance, he swapped tobacco preferences with playing partner Chez Reavie. You could not conjure a better metaphor.
After a bogey at 12, Koepka marched to the finish knowing he likely needed one or two better coming home. He never got them. His pairing played quickly, as if the burgers and the whiskey were half-price if they finished under their allotted four hours. Koepka is somehow simultaneously the coolest cat on the property and the most impatient one.
A traipse up No. 17, and a massive flock of seagulls scattered off over the ocean. Disappearing birdies, speaking of metaphors. Koepka parred there and went for it all on the 72nd. Following a decimated 3-wood, he left his heart on the course 226 yards from the pin on maybe the prettiest closing walk in this tournament’s rota. He sent a 3-iron missile straight for the ghost of Willie Anderson and his three-peat at Myopia Hunt Club in 1905. It was too much.
With Koepka, it was always going to be too much before it was too little. He made par and finished at 10-under 274. Three clear of the field yet three shy of Gary Woodland.
In the end, Koepka was done in by a performance that was — gasp — lower than Tiger Woods’ in 2000. Koepka stared down 464 golfers in the last three U.S. Opens, and he lost to one. Two golfers have beaten him in three majors so far in 2019. Two! His 15 strokes gained this week were three better than 154 other golfers. They just weren’t better than Woodland’s 18.
“It doesn’t sting,” said Koepka after hugging Woodland. “I played great. Nothing I could do. I gave it my all. I give it my all every time and sometimes, like this week — it happened at Augusta — it’s not meant to be. I played great. I hit every shot that I wanted to. And sometimes, no matter how good your good is, it isn’t there.”
Koepka did what the Warriors could not. He honestly and completely emptied the tank. He shot a 68 with the U.S. Open in the balance — his fourth straight round in the 60s this week at Pebble Beach — and it simply wasn’t what he needed to shoot. He didn’t lose; he just got beat.
“Yeah, it was awesome to come this close to going three in a row,” said Koepka. “It’s incredible. Anytime you can compete in a major is special, and to have a chance to go back-to-back-to-back, that was pretty cool. I didn’t really think about it until I was done on 18 and realized how close I actually was to … not making history, but kind of tying it, I guess you could say. But it’s a cool feeling to know. Just wasn’t meant to be this week.”
The lasting memory I’ll have of Koepka is of him standing in the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach with so many things at stake at the same time. Some golfers never get within 72 holes of a major. Most never get within 18. There he was within one of his fifth overall and his third in a row at the U.S. Open, this time at possibly the toughest place to even win one. His right leg was kicked out, and his right hand rested on his Nike golf bag. Myriad camera operators stood behind him with a crowd ready to crown him king in front and the whole world on his hip.
He pulled a club quickly once Rory McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen left the green ahead of him. Koepka loves what you must love if you’re to even attempt to win three of these in a row. With red, white and blue USGA flags whipping at the hands of a frigid breeze off to his left, the man in the arena entered it one final time this week. Soon he would no longer be the ruler of this championship or the owner of this trophy. But he defended it twice as valiantly as someone possibly could.
On a week when the sports world reminded us that staying atop the mountain is more difficult than ascending it, Koepka proved his worth as a champ just as much in defeat as he ever did in victory.