Brooks Koepka and his guts, which last decade announced themselves as humongous, will wake Sunday with a one-shot lead, a matter that used to mean you would bet on Koepka except that nobody should bet on something as capricious as golf. He finished a rainy and more rainy Saturday at hallowed Oak Hill with a second straight 66 that took him to 6 under par, with booming Norwegian Viktor Hovland and steady Canadian Corey Conners at 5 under, resilient Bryson DeChambeau at 3 under, Justin Rose and Scottie Scheffler at 2 under, and Rory McIlroy at 1 under.
That would be four major champions, one onrushing force (Hovland) and a lot of Canadian voices (following Conners), all of it bubbling beneath Koepka. And that means it’s time to see whether a person who perfected the art of finishing and then lost it can rediscover it — or whether protracted recovery from knee surgery might deny rediscovery.
All this will come a mere six Sundays after Koepka sat up all night on a Sunday into a Monday because of the bafflement of that Sunday at the Masters and his 75 groaning from the leader board.
He led by two entering that final round, so by Saturday he vowed “to just never think the way I thought going into the final round. I think that was a big thing for me, but other than that I think even having — learning what I learned at Augusta kind of helped today. Like I said, I won’t do it again the rest of my career. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t go play bad — you can play good, you’ll play bad, but I’ll never have that mind-set or that won’t ever be the reason.”
Coy as ever, he won’t reveal the pre-Augusta Sunday thought.
“Not really, no,” he had said here Wednesday. “I’ll be honest. Yeah, I’ll keep that to myself.”
It must have been some crummy thought.
Here’s how one of the best finishers in sports got to be one of the best finishers in sports: He won every which pressurized way. He won the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin by four after starting Sunday one shot back, won the 2018 U.S. Open at diabolical Shinnecock on Long Island by one after starting Sunday in a four-way tie for the lead, won the 2018 PGA at Bellerive in suburban St. Louis by two with a 66 that repelled the ferocious charge of a 64 from (gosh) Tiger Woods, and won the 2019 PGA at Bethpage near the inner end of Long Island by two after leading by seven and watching Dustin Johnson climb within one as the New York booms and ovations tilted toward Johnson.
None of that was anything akin to easy.
“I love New York,” Koepka said of the noise Saturday, so there’s that.
With Koepka established as great and super on Sunday as the decade turned, he began to look great but shaky on Sunday, which just looked plain weird.
At the 2020 PGA at Harding Park in San Francisco, he began the final round two shots off the lead, talked some welcome trash about leader Johnson and then tied for the second-worst round in the entire mix, a closing 74 on a generous course. At the 2021 PGA at Kiawah Island in South Carolina, he began Sunday in second, one shot behind Phil Mickelson, then shot a 74 that made him unmemorable in a day that gushed memories of Mickelson. And at the 2023 Masters, yeah.
Now he’s up there at two straight majors, fantastic enough for the chance to flex a learning curve right away, a chance that doesn’t come to those who aren’t fantastic. “I thought all I had to do was be healthy,” he said Saturday. “That was just the only question mark. But, you know, having an offseason to kind of just bust my butt and be in the gym every day, to work on things, doing different — doing different recovery, it’s been really good.” The long road from knee surgery in March 2021 might have found its way to something more like the late 2010s.
Here in the early 2020s, Hovland has reached 25 as a routine threat — tied for seventh and tied for fourth at the previous two majors. “Yeah, another boring answer,” he said of his mind-set for Sunday, soon adding, “I don’t think this is a course where you can kind of get too crazy.” He did say, “My iron game has been very, very good this week,” but more in the area of curbing stress by getting to 15 or 20 feet rather than causing wows with wondrous shots.
Conners, who has spent a heap of moments leading here in his 17th try at a major, followed his 67 of Thursday and his 68 of Friday with a 70. He then said, “Yeah, it was a really solid day,” solid enough that he overcame a wacky situation on No. 16 where his ball became so embedded at the edge of a bunker that it became hard even to find. His double bogey dropped him from 7 under to 5 under but “didn’t really affect the last few holes,” he said.
Scheffler, the 2022 Masters champion so good that his front nine felt as if it didn’t belong — bogeys on Nos. 1, 2, 6 and 7 — wound up “proud of how I fought.” Rose, with 19 major top-10s, 10 top-fives and one major win (2013 U.S. Open), contends again.
And there’s McIlroy, even though McIlroy hasn’t always felt as if he’s there. “I think I still don’t feel like my game is in great shape,” he said after a second straight 69 built on five birdies and four bogeys. “I’ve held it together well. . . . But I think this tournament and especially in these conditions and on this golf course, the nonphysical parts of the game I think are way more important this week than the physical parts of the game — and I think I’ve done those well, and that’s the reason that I’m in a decent position.”
That nonphysical part is about to get another close-up Sunday — for that man five shots ahead of McIlroy more than for anyone else.