Sometimes it takes something truly special to deny history and with two magical strikes here at the 119th US Open, Gary Woodland wrested the title from defending champion Brooks Koepka, just when it seemed the world No 1 was inexorably marching towards an immortal hat-trick.
It has been 115 years since the Scot Willie Anderson won three US Opens in a row and when Koepka birdied four of the first five holes to close within one of Woodland, it appeared that old Willie would at last have a companion in the record books and the 29-year-old would collect his fifth major victory in the last nine he had played.
However, despite having fallen short the previous seven times he had held a 54-hole lead, Woodland refused to succumb to the pressure of seeing the game’s best player rushing up to his heels on the leaderboard and with a show of courage and control, the 35-year-old not only held on, but actually pulled away to post a 69 for a 13-under total that was good enough to prevail by three shots.
As well as the 30-footer for the grandstand birdie on the 18th, the shots that will stick long in the mind were the three-wood on the 14th and the wedge on the green of the 17th. With the former, the safe play would have been to lay-up in front of the bunkers guarding the par-five green. Instead, Woodland, the new world No 12, recognised the opportunity to cement his position and with a 260-yard carry uphill, found the putting surface before it rolled into the fringe.
Woodland made his birdie and after solid pars at the 15th and 16th, simply had to negotiate the forbidding par-three 17th to ensure his first major. He was two in front and up ahead, Koepka could not make birdie on the final hole. He leaked his tee-shot and found himself on the green, but 30 yards from the pin, with a hump to factor in.
Woodland elected to chip and did so magnificently, flopping it up and over to three feet. It was the type of pitch that this wonderful ball-striker, but once suspect chipper, could have only dreamt about executing this time last year. He has been working full-time with Pete Cowen since December and the transformation has been startling. The Yorkshireman also works with Koepka. Cowen deserves so much more recognition than he receives in his homeland.
Certainly Woodland awards Cowen plenty of credit. Never mind the £1.8m winning cheque, this was an emotional breakthrough because as well as shedding the tag of underachiever there has been personal tragedy for Woodland to overcome, too.
In March 2017, his wife, Gabby, was pregnant with twins when it was discovered one had died in the womb. Three months later, their son, Jax, was born. Gabby is again pregnant, this time with identical twin girls that are due in August. “US Open champion sounds really, really good,” Woodland said. “I never let the tournament get ahead of me and think I’ve won and this is special. The shots on 14th and the 17th showed what I can do. I was playing to win.”
Koepka’s contribution to a brilliant US Open - in which the USGA, for once, allowed Pebble Beach to provide a test that was fair and exciting - should not be underestimated.
His 68 meant that he became the first player in the US Open to shoot four rounds in the 60s and not win. Of course, Koepka was chasing a different sort of history but there is so much consolation to take. His last four majors read 1-2-1-2 and he will be the obvious favourite for The Open in four weeks’ time.
“On the 18th I realised that I was close to accomplishing something that had not been done for more than 100 years and that is a great, great feeling,” he said. “But I don’t think anybody in the world could play better than Gary did.”
It was a brutal day for Justin Rose. The Englishman, looking finally to follow up his 2013 US Open triumph, drew level with playing partner Woodland when birdieing the first. And despite bogeying the second and falling two behind, he was still in touch after birdieing the seventh. But then came the collapse.
Rose’s shortgame had been rescuing him all week, but suddenly the task proved beyond his wedges and putter as he bogeyed four of the next holes. Rose eventually tapped in for a 74 to finish in a tie for third alongside Spain’s Jon Rahm (68) and the Americans Xander Schauffele (67) and Chez Reavie (71)
In a tie for ninth came Rory McIlroy on five-under after a 73. The Northern Irishman was only five behind at the start and was fancied to launch a charge for a first major win in almost five years. But his challenge was essentially over when he double-bogeyed the second. McIlroy, as he does, managed to pick up a raft of birdies - six in all - but there was another double-bogey on the 16th, as well as three other dropped shots.
In a tie for 12th on four-under came three Englishmen in Matt Fitzpatrick (68), Danny Willett (71) and Matt Wallace (71), while we surely witnessed the rising of a future Ryder Cup star for Europe in Norway’s Viktor Hovland who won the leading amateur honours also on four-under courtesy of a 67.