During Round 3 of the Phoenix Open on Saturday as Jordan Spieth lit the entire sport on fire with a memorable 61, Brooks Koepka was 8 under and six shots back of the lead — an afterthought on a day when a multiple-time major winner looking for his first win in several years was making a move. Then Koepka played the last 24 holes of his tournament in 11 under and won at TPC Scottsdale by a single stroke over K.H. Lee and Xander Schauffele on Sunday with a final round 65.
Koepka, himself mired in a substantial winning drought (for him), was fabulous on Sunday, tracking the lead pack before catching them at the end and dropping the hammer with one of the great chips of his life. He went out in 34 before making birdie at 13, 14 and 15, which led to an insane eagle chip-in at the par-4 17th that looks even more impossible every time you watch it.
“Today I just stayed patient,” Koepka told NBC. “I feel like I always do a pretty good job of that, just kind of hanging around, waiting. Waiting until it’s my turn on Sunday. Things happened to go my way.”
Koepka came into this week having missed three consecutive cuts, and the trash he loves to talk had spoiled. Everything is funny when you’re winning every other major and nobody is ranked ahead of you, but when you haven’t won in 18 months and a couple of guys who were in college last time you hoisted a trophy are breathing down your neck in the Official World Golf Rankings, everything seems a lot less cute.
In that sense, Koepka had something to prove this week in Phoenix, and more broadly, this 2020-21 season. That sounds like a ridiculous thing to say about a four-time major champion, but after an injury-riddled 2020 saw him fall outside the top 10 with no end to his tumble in sight, questions started to mount. Could Koepka regain his outrageous form before he injured his knee at the end of 2019?
Last year’s showing seemed to say that the answer to that question was no, and those missed cuts to start 2021 seemed to reaffirm it. Then this week happened, and Koepka seems like he’s righted the ship a bit.
“I was in some dark places mentally,” said Koepka of his injury recovery on his left knee which has been very iffy since the end of 2019. “I didn’t know if I was ever going to be the same again.”
He sure looked the same late on Sunday at TPC Scottsdale, and the win there — where he also won for the first time in his PGA Tour career back in 2015 — might be an even more impressive than the first time around. Golf is always hard, but as we’ve seen with Spieth, it’s never harder than when you’re trying to climb the mountain for a second time. That’s where Koepka found himself, and he seemed to be losing his foothold until he dropped those four straight birdies to end the third round and then buried a chip that won a tournament that has him back where his talent says he belongs. Grade: A+
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Xander Schauffele (T2): Schauffele shot a pretty disappointing 71 on Sunday when 70 would have gotten him in a playoff. Though Spieth got all the headlines on Saturday, it’s Schauffele that’s been playing the better golf of late and probably should have landed his first win in two years. He always seems a bit allergic to leads, and while we’re not in Tony Finau “when is he going to win again?” territory, we’re at least in the ballpark. Grade: A
Jordan Spieth (T4): An absolute thrill ride from Spieth. From his 61 on Saturday to two balls in the water and a 72 on Sunday, it was everything I wanted and have come to expect from him. The bottom line here is that it’s extraordinarily hard to win PGA Tour events when you’re close to worst in the field with the driver (he was 64th of 66). His approach play was incredible, which was why he contended, but he still has work to do off the tee (as we saw on the 15th and 17th holes on Sunday). Grade: A
Rory McIlroy (T13): After three days of pretty middling play (at least for him), McIlroy surged on Sunday with a 64 and finished inside the top 20. The encouraging part is that he hit his irons better every single round of the event, but he just can’t seem to build a four-round tournament. His play right now overall is far better than it was at the end of last summer, but there’s still another step for him to take before he’s holding trophies again. The good news for him is that that step seems a lot shorter than it has over most of the past year. Grade: B-