Ryder Cup gave Brooks Koepka confidence to withstand pressure
The back-to-back birdies to start the round were big. So, too, the shot out of the bunker on 14. And that birdie putt on 15 that kept everyone at bay? The definition of clutch.
Truth is, though, Brooks Koepka won his first major back in October.
If not for the crushing pressure of the Ryder Cup, Koepka wouldn’t be the new U.S. Open champion. Keeping your composure — and cushion of a lead — down the stretch will barely cause you to break a sweat after you’ve survived three days’ worth of jangling nerves and stomach in a constant state of free fall.
“The Ryder Cup was the first real taste of true pressure I think I’ve ever felt,” he said after his 4-stroke victory Sunday afternoon at Erin Hills. “And to be honest with you, this week I don’t think I ever got nervous, not at one point. I just stayed in the moment.”
Indeed, when he made his par putt on 18, he gave only a small fist pump.
It wasn’t until several minutes later, when he was in a golf cart heading back to scoring, that he buried his head in his hands, overcome with the enormity of both what he’d done and what he’d won.
“It’s probably the most emotion I ever showed coming down the stretch,” Koepka said in total seriousness. “It feels amazing to get my name on this trophy with so many other great names. It’s truly an honor.”
Koepka is the seventh consecutive first-timer to win a major, extending a run that started with Jason Day’s win at the 2015 PGA Championship. That the newbie trend would continue was all but a given; Sergio Garcia and Louis Oosthuizen were the only major winners to finish in the top 25, and neither was ever a factor Sunday.
To win a major takes talent, of course. But everyone out here has talent. What sets major champions apart is a steely resolve, an ability to block out the moment and all it represents, and will themselves past any distractions.
It sounds easy, but it is anything but when you’ve never done it before.
“I don’t feel as though I lost a golf tournament,” said Brian Harman, who finished in a tie for second. “I think Brooks went out and won the tournament.”
His 5-under 67 was the second-lowest round of the day. He made only one bogey. He missed only one green. His total score of 16-under matched the U.S. Open record set by Rory McIlroy in 2011.
Koepka had already won on the PGA Tour, along with a handful of victories in Europe and Asia. But a major is a completely different beast. You are leaving a mark in history, your name forever joined with Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods.
The magnitude of such a moment can be overwhelming. Look at Justin Thomas, who got flustered when a gust of wind on the No. 4 green blew his ball 4 feet back from the hole. He made bogeys on consecutive holes and was never a factor again.
Harman had not bogeyed a hole on the back nine all week until he drove into a tangle of fescue on the 12th. He would miss his par putts on both 12 and 13, along with one on 18 that would have given him sole possession of second place.
Hideki Matsuyama, Tommy Fleetwood, Rickie Fowler, Charley Hoffman — each had his chance and each one faltered.
“I’ve never contended for a major before. So when you get to Saturday and Sunday, you’ve got to see how you react and how you feel,” Fleetwood said.
But Koepka already knew how he’d feel because of the Ryder Cup.
It’s never easy to be a rookie at the Ryder Cup, a fevered international competition. Even less so last year, as the Americans tried to win the Cup back for the first time since 2008.
Koepka talked of being so nervous he worried about keeping his ball on the tee. Yet he exuded a calm swagger, and wound up as one of the most productive Americans. He collected three points from four matches, including a 5&4 rout of Masters champion Danny Willett.
The confidence he drew from that, along with strong showings at other majors, separated him from the pack as much as his booming drives and precision on the greens.
“It’s the basic answer of just staying one shot at a time,” Koepka said. “I was not thinking about anything else out there. I wasn’t thinking anything other than the shot I just had or was about to hit.
“One more good shot. One more good shot,” Koepka added. “And that was kind of all we talked about all week. It sounds pretty boring, but it’s the truth.”
Koepka’s performance at the Ryder Cup helped the Americans win the coveted trophy. Eight months later, it helped him win one of his own.