ATLANTA — For three frenetic minutes on Sunday, at least 14 people searched frantically through fallen leaves and thick kudzu under magnolia trees for Brooks Koepka‘s wayward tee shot on the seventh hole at East Lake Golf Club.
Someone found a Callaway. Then a TaylorMade. And finally a Titleist, but not the one on which Koepka had colored a black dot over the number.
Once a PGA Tour official announced that Koepka’s 3 minutes to search had expired, his ball was officially lost.
And so were Koepka’s chances of winning the FedEx Cup Playoffs and claiming the $15 million bonus that came with finishing first in the Tour’s season-ending event.
Koepka, who started the final round with a one-shot lead over Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele, took a double-bogey 6 after needing a second tee shot on the par-4 seventh hole. It ended his streak of 141 consecutive holes without a double-bogey. McIlroy birdied the seventh hole, and the three-shot swing gave him a one-stroke lead over Koepka.
After Koepka had bogeys on three consecutive holes on the back nine — he missed a 4-foot putt on No. 12, a 5-footer on No. 13 and a 7-footer on No. 14 — McIlroy cruised to a four-shot victory to join Tiger Woods as the only players to win two FedEx Cup titles.
Koepka finished in a tie for third, five shots behind McIlroy, after a final round of 2-over 72. Adding insult to injury, he missed a birdie putt on the final hole that cost him $500,000. Koepka still walked away with $3.5 million.
“Just didn’t put the ball in play, man,” Koepka said. “If you’re not going to put it in play, you’re going to have a hard time scoring. You’re going to have a hard time controlling your distances. And just didn’t make any putts. You know, those three putts I missed right there in row — 12, 13, 14 — kind of took the air out of everything.”
The man who had been the most dominant for much of the PGA Tour season, winning a second straight PGA Championship and finishing tied for fourth or better at the other three majors, finally revealed that perhaps he isn’t as unflappable as we might have believed.
For nearly four hours on Sunday, Koepka, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, seemed to flinch when McIlroy challenged him. Or maybe Koepka only showed us what we’ve known all along — that golf is really hard and even the best players aren’t going to win all of the time.
“[McIlroy] just played better,” Koepka said. “He played great golf [on Sunday], pretty much mistake-free. He was impressive to watch. He put it in the fairway a lot, hit a lot of greens. And even his short game, the up-and-down he made on 11, that was pretty tasty right there. And then the way he finished it off right there [with birdies on Nos. 17 and 18] was very impressive, and hats off to him.”
If there is one criticism of Koepka’s play this season, it is his performance on Sundays. At the Masters in April, he made a double-bogey on the par-3 12th hole to fall four shots off the lead. He had an eagle on the next hole to move into a tie for the lead, but then his putter went cold down the stretch. He finished tied for second, one shot behind Woods.
At the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black the next month, Koepka started the final round with a seven-shot lead, the biggest in the tournament’s history. Then the unimaginable happened: All but one shot of his lead was gone by the 15th hole. Koepka recovered and held off Dustin Johnson to win by two shots. His 74 in the final round was the highest by a PGA champion in 15 years.
At the U.S. Open in June, like at East Lake on Sunday, Koepka simply ran into a better player on that day. Koepka narrowly missed joining Willie Anderson as the only players to win three consecutive U.S. Open titles. He finished solo second, three strokes behind Gary Woodland, and became the first player in 119 U.S. Opens to shoot four rounds in the 60s and not win.
Koepka never seemed to have much of a chance to win The Open at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland in July. He started the final round seven shots behind Irishman Shane Lowry and was 4 over through his first four holes. Despite heavy rain, 35 mph winds and a pairing with a notoriously slow player (J.B. Holmes), Koepka recovered to finish in a tie for fourth place.
Asked Sunday whether his 2018 performance, when he won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, was better than his body of work this season, Koepka said he would rather have had two major championships instead of one.
Along with the PGA Championship, he also won the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in October and July’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis. Not bad for a guy who says he only practices for majors.
“I like two majors a little bit better,” Koepka said. “But at the same time, I thought my consistency was a little bit better. I think if you take away the major wins, I would say this year is probably better. This year was very, very consistent.”
If not for a few Sunday hiccups, it might have been even much better.
“I didn’t play how I wanted to,” Koepka said on Sunday. “But at the same time, I still love the grind. I still love competing and trying to figure it out, even when it’s not your day.”