ERIN, Wis. — Brooks Koepka was so nervous at Hazeltine for the Ryder Cup last fall, he worried he wouldn’t be able to re-tee his ball if it fell off.
After that stomach-in-his-throat pressure cooker, Sunday at the U.S. Open would be a breeze.
Good thing too, with blustery conditions at Erin Hills pushing wayward shots even farther off course and blowing putts from their lines.
Composed and steely-eyed, the long-hitting Koepka battled winds, firm greens, and U.S. Open pressure to hoist the trophy on Sunday, shooting 5-under 67 to post 16-under 272 for the tournament en route to his first major win. Koepka’s score relative to par tied Rory McIlory’s tournament record from 2011 at Congressional, appropriate considering McIlroy was the star of the European team in their 2016 Ryder Cup tilt.
“It’s one of those things, it’s just confidence. The more and more opportunities you get, you put yourself in that position, you feel a lot more comfortable,” Koepka said ahead of his historic final round, noting his experience at Hazeltine for the Ryder Cup was the most pressure he had felt, and that it prepared him for a moment like this.
And if there were any nerves to start his round, the 27-year-old didn’t show them, starting birdie, birdie to take the outright lead.
What U.S. Open pressure?
On the range Saturday before Round 3, all Koepka got from his coach Butch Harmon was a fist bump as he walked by. Harmon was working with another one of his pupils, Rickie Fowler.
Maybe Harmon knew Brooks didn’t need any extra coaching.
Watching Koepka hit balls with his chiseled frame and easy power, you see something baseball scouts must see in flame-throwing pitchers: The ball jumps out of the hand. Baseball was, after all, Koepka’s first love, the irony being he couldn’t hit for power.
Koepka doesn’t appear to swing hard, and his action is a little wristy at the top, but the ball explodes off his club face. If you told spectators that the 6-foot, 186-pound Koepka was a pro baseball player, they would probably believe you.
For a week when the bombers flamed out at a supposed bomber’s paradise, Koepka was one of the few long hitters to thrive at Erin Hills after Justin Thomas struggled through Sunday’s final round.
Koepka, fifth on the PGA Tour in driving distance, never hit more than 7-iron into a par-4, even the ones playing nearly 500 yards.
“Just staying patient and not trying to win,” Koepka said of how he was able to stay calm and focused, citing a phone call he received from 2016 U.S. Open winner Dustin Johnson encouraging him.
“I think that’s been the main reason why I haven’t really played that well. I’ve been trying to win so badly. I felt like I’ve underachieved.”
A birdie on the short par-4 second, thanks to that indomitable power, gave Koepka the outright lead. He had the outright lead or a share of it nearly all afternoon.
After a middling chip on the par-3 13th, Koepka made a knee-knocking tester to save par. Moments later, Brian Harman, the third-round leader who gamely gave chase after falling behind, made bogey after hitting it into the fescue. The lead was once again Koepka’s and he never relinquished it.
A birdie on the par-5 14th thanks to a brilliant shot from the sand gave Koepka a two-shot lead and for a player who once suggested golf was “boring,” he gave fans plenty to get excited about as he made three birdies in his last five holes. He carded just one bogey on the back nine all tournament.
Asked after the tournament if he’d made the right choice sticking with golf, Koepka said dryly, “I think so. I think I’ll be all right.”
It has been an atypical journey for Koepka, a native of West Palm Beach, Fla. After becoming a three-time All-American at Florida State, he turned pro in 2012 and went to play in Europe on the Challenge Tour, instead of going through and playing the mini-tours or Web.com Tour in the states.
“Obviously Brooks dealt with it amazingly,” Koepka’s final-round playing partner and current European Tour player Tommy Fleetwood said.
“He came and kicked everybody’s ass over there, didn’t he? Then, you know, a few years on he’s been in the U.S. Open. But he’s proven for a long time how good he is. Now he’s done it in a major.”
After winning three times on the European Tour, Koepka earned his card there. Then he tied for fourth at the 2014 U.S. Open, earning his PGA Tour card.
But after the third round of the Challenge Tour event that earned him his European Tour card, Koepka felt beaten down by the schedule, exhausted from the grind.
“I called (my manager) and I was like, I don’t even want to play. I just want to go home.”
He didn’t go home. Instead he won the tournament. The next day he qualified for the U.S. Open that punched his ticket to the PGA Tour.
Coming into Sunday, Koepka was in a triumvirate of young gun Americans seeking their first major titles, with Fowler and Justin Thomas.
Thomas made three bogeys in his first five holes and posted a disappointing 75, a day after his record 9-under 63, to finish 8-under and tied for ninth for the championship.
Fowler never quite got on track, couldn’t string birdies together on a day when they were on the course to be made, and shot par 72 to finish 10-under in a tie for fifth.
Fowler was part of the Ryder Cup win in 2016 that Koepka insisted was so instrumental in creating the equanimity needed for this moment. Thomas no doubt has a Ryder Cup experience of his own to come.
“I think the Ryder Cup was kind of the first real taste of true pressure I think I’ve ever felt,” Koepka said, adding he didn’t think he was nervous once during the championship.
If Ryder Cup pressure sharpened him for U.S. Open pressure, there’s no telling the limits to what Koepka can do after he stared down the toughest test in golf and came out on top.
With Koepka beginning to realize his estimable ability and keeping his nerves at bay, don’t expect this to be the last time we see the 27-year-old former baseball player hoisting the trophy at a major championship.