Hours before he headed out to Shinnecock Hills to defend his U.S. Open title in the final round Sunday, Brooks Koepka and his buddies had a bench-pressing contest at a local gym.
“He put up 225 [pounds] 14 times on a Sunday; that’s pretty impressive,” said high school pal Dan Gambill. “I was like, `What are you, nuts?’ We had a bet. His trainer said he couldn’t do 15, and he fell short on the 15th.”
No matter. Koepka made up for it. At the end of the day, he hoisted the 8.5-pound U.S. Open trophy after shooting a two-under-par 68 to beat Tommy Fleetwood by a stroke and become the seventh player to win the storied championship in back-to-back years.
“Probably couldn't have dreamed of it in my wildest dreams,” said Koepka, 28, the tournament’s first repeat winner since Curtis Strange in 1989. “I'm at a loss for words right now, but it's really incredible.”
Koepka held off his good friend and closing-round playing partner, Dustin Johnson, who had a commanding four-stroke lead after two rounds before stumbling Saturday and shooting even par Sunday. Johnson finished third at three over.
For Koepka, it turned out to be an unforgettable Father’s Day present for his dad in the form of a second major championship. Bob Koepka didn’t attend the U.S. Open last year because he couldn’t find a convenient place to stay (and his son wasn’t expected to win).
“Two years in a row, I haven’t gotten him anything,” the younger Koepka said with a laugh. “Next year, I’m not going to get him anything, either. It might bring some good luck.”
After an embarrassing Saturday for the U.S. Golf Assn., when the greens were so dry and fast that players complained they were unfair, groundskeepers watered the putting surfaces to slow them and make them easier to hold. The average scores dropped accordingly, from 75.328 on Saturday to 72.179 on Sunday.
Fleetwood, who finished two hours before Koepka, watched from the clubhouse after shooting a scorching 63, which tied the record for the lowest round in a U.S. Open.
“Yeah, but I wanted 62,” said Fleetwood, who missed birdie putts on the final three holes. Fleetwood and Koepka were playing partners in the final round of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. Koepka won that tournament by four strokes at 16 under, and Fleetwood finished fourth at minus-11.
“He seems to bring it every time it’s a U.S. Open…” Koepka said of Fleetwood. “He’ll definitely be holding some major championships here soon.”
Koepka was unwavering. He had three birdies and a bogey on the front nine, two birdies and two bogey on the back, and never was rattled. The muscular and perpetually tanned Florida State alum had what his parents like to call “that Koepka look” of determination. He’s had that confidence for as long as they can remember — and they occasionally needed to keep him in check.
“I remember when he made the high school golf team at 12 years old when he was in the sixth grade,” Bob Koepka said. “We were driving back and he made the comment, `I’m probably going to drop out of school in about four years and turn pro.’ My wife said, `You should have seen the look on your face.’
“I immediately pulled the car off to the side of the road and said, `Let me tell you something, son. You’re going to finish high school. You’re going to go to college. And after that, if you’re good enough, then you can turn pro.’”
Koepka went to the tiny Wellington (Fla.) Christian School at the time, and sixth graders were eligible to play on the high school team if they were good enough. Koepka made it and was the second-best player on the team.
“Back then, he hit nine drivers for nine holes,” his father said. “Lot of the par fours it was driver, three-wood, wedge. And for the par fives it was driver, three-wood, three-wood, wedge. Par threes were driver, and hope you get it on.”
In this tournament, Koepka boomed his drives an average of 318.3 yards, and Sunday hit 12 of 18 greens in regulation.
But there was a chance he wouldn’t be able to return to defend his title. He missed four months with a left wrist injury that kept him out of the Masters in April. He packed on 15 pounds, ran out of TV shows to watch, and said it was the low point of his playing career.
“It was very frustrating, sitting on the couch, not doing anything,” he said. “I couldn’t pick up anything with my left hand. I was in a soft cast all the way up to my elbow. It wasn’t fun. A lot of TV. I don’t wish it upon anybody.”
All that was a distant memory Sunday. Bob Koepka stands to collect a tidy sum at his golf club in Atlantis, Fla., because he took his son in a U.S. Open pool. He was hesitant to do so at first, fearing he might jinx Brooks.
Then, there was the memory of taking his son to the Masters about 20 years ago.
“I took him there when he was 8 years old,” Bob Koepka said. “I joked with him then, `I got you here. Your job is to get me back.’ He’s done that quite well.”