Koepka Wins PGA Championships, Conquers Demons, and Improves LIV

PITTSFORD, NY — Six weeks ago on a Sunday, Brooks Koepka didn't sleep. He should ponder and chase demons. After it all — the horrific knee injury, the agony of unfulfilled ambition, the ridicule and great rift in the professional golf he helped make — he had risen to command the Masters Tournament, and then he fell short. Collapse, really.

He eventually vowed, he recalled over a weekend at the Oak Hill Country Club, to never “think the way I thought going into the final round”. On Sunday night, Koepka found his justification: a two-stroke win in the PGA Championship, giving him his first major tournament trophy since 2019. It was the fifth major win of Koepka's career, tying him with the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson.

It also made him the first member of LIV Golf, a year-old breakaway league financed by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, to win a major title since joining the circuit. And while Koepka's victory at Oak Hill may not have done much for some of the criticism against LIV — its ties to a repressive government, its contentious intentions, its gleeful instigation of a financial arms race in an ancient sport — it has definitively put an end to the dispute over whether the man who played the handful of 54-hole tournaments can triumph on golf's grandest 72-hole stages.

The notion, which appears to have gone a little further after the Masters at Augusta National, that Koepka's competitive days had ended shut with a three-under-par 67 on Sunday. But this is a 33-year-old player whose results in the 2022 main season look something like this: miss cut, tie for 55th, solo 55th, miss cut. It's easy to forget that in 2021, the order goes something like this: missed cut, tied for second, tied for fourth, tied for sixth.

At the end of last year, he had a strong feeling that his recovery was nearing completion and he could finally be relevant again. Around January, he said, he was sure of it.

“He's back healthy,” said Cameron Smith, who won the British Open last summer and then joined LIV later in the year. “I think it brings a little bit of confidence and being out there and just being able to do your job.”

It didn't look like that recently on Thursday, when the prospect of Koepka outlasting a swarm of stars seemed more improbable than even unlikely. He had opened his tournament with a two-over-par 72 and was, in his own opinion, not good and struggling to hit the ball his way. He couldn't remember, he said, the last time he hit so badly.

But he wasn't too far behind as the tournament, the first major tournament to be played at Oak Hill since the mammoth attempt to recover some of the terrifying tests that characterized the Donald J. Ross-designed course, emerged as one of the scariest PGA Championships in recent times. . decade, often evoking the rigors of the 2008 competition at Oakland Hills in Michigan. Of the 156 players who competed last week, only 11 finished subpar—retreating from 2013, when the PGA Championship was contested at Oak Hill and 21 players finished in the red zone.

Stinginess comes with even the lanes, with its rugged and treacherous bunkers being more accommodating on Sunday than ever before. Smith, Cam Davis, Kurt Kitayama and Sepp Straka all shot 65 seconds on Sunday, moving them up the leaderboard. Patrick Cantlay, who made one of the tournament's rare eagles, signed with 66. Michael Block, whose day job was head pro at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in southeast Los Angeles, had a hole in one at No. PGA championship ace by a club professional since 1996.

But much of the focus on Sunday will be on Koepka; Viktor Hovland, the budding Norwegian talent; and Scottie Scheffler, the No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Koepka, whose position has shrunk due to his lucrative ties to LIV, whose tournament is not accredited in the ranking system, enters Sunday at No. 44. (The PGA of America, which organizes this tournament, is different from the PGA Tour, the LIV's rival.)

Koepka entered the first tee box with a one stroke lead and doubled his margin in record time as he birdied the second hole. He had played the hole at par for the first three days, always hitting the green in two strokes but leaving himself with long putts. On Sunday, with the pin on the right front of the field, he needed less than 5 feet.

His birdie putt on the third needed even less, after his longest tee shot of the tournament at the hole known as Vista moved his lead to three strokes.

The sixth hole, which posed a threat to so many players throughout the tournament, loomed. A court-finished par-4 challenge with a 4.52 batting average, Koepka held up pretty well Thursday, Friday and Saturday: par in each of the first three rounds. On Sunday, however, his tee shot rocketed into the thick grass in his so-called hometown spot. He took the drop and then, about 191 yards from the hole, hit it to the green and eventually made it through with a bogey. Although Koepka caught up with another bogey, Hovland also stumbled in 7th.

In turn, Koepka led Hovland in single strokes. Scheffler, a vocal sensation since he won the Masters last year, and Bryson DeChambeau, winner of the 2020 US Open, are three points clear.

Koepka replied teasingly: birdie, bogey, birdie. Hovland had a chance for a birdie on the 12th, but his tap from nearly 15 feet edged to the left of the cup. With six holes remaining, Koepka's advantage was again reduced to two strokes. Two holes later, down to one.

But in nearly every major golf championship, there comes a time when one man's victory seems inevitable. It may not have been buttoned up mathematically yet, but almost everyone knows that tournaments are over before they do.

On Sunday, the scene was the 16th hole. It wasn't the worst in Oak Hill, not by far. Hovland would remember.

His tee shot in the bunker, he's using his 9-iron. With less than 175 yards to the hole, he swung and fired the ball – not into the green, but into the lip of the bunker. His fourth shot hit the green. The bogey putt missed, leaving him with a double bogey. Koepka, in the twilight of the chase for his third PGA Championship win, birdied to claim a four-shot lead.

“It's not easy to face a guy like that,” Hovland said of his duel with Koepka. “He's not going to give you anything, and I don't feel like I'm giving him anything either until I'm 16.”

Scheffler made a birdie putt on the 18th green soon after narrowing Koepka's path. Koepka himself narrowed it down even further with a bogey at No.17.

He came off the 18th tee, however, with two shots remaining. He made no bogeys in the hole, playing for 497 yards on Sunday, all week. His tee shot shot 318 yards and hit the fairway, the stands soaring in the distance and the gallery packed with spectators, ready to see if Koepka did make a comeback.

He hit the green with his next swing, to a standing ovation as he made his way up the steep incline. He knelt down. He approached the ball, steadied himself and knocked it forward. The ball came to rest briefly – 3 inches, according to tournament officials.

Of course, there will be one final hiccup.

He tried again. The ball falls into the cup.

Indeed, however, Koepka is back.