PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Brooks Koepka had just scooped his ball out of rough thick enough to hide a toddler, and watched as his shot rolled 22 feet straight into the cup. That birdie on No. 5, his third of the day, put him just two strokes back of the lead at the U.S. Open.
And while the crowd around him erupted in delirious applause, Koepka raised a hand and smiled with all the enthusiasm of someone thanking you for holding the door open.
Koepka, the two-time defending champion of both this event and the PGA Championship, would go on to finish the day with a nice little 69, 2-under par and four strokes off the lead held by Justin Rose. And through it all, he wore the mildly pleased expression of a man who gets his meal exactly as he ordered it, nothing more, nothing less.
Late in the day on Thursday, cameras cut to fans out on the beach who had carved “GO TIGER!” into the sand. Why wouldn’t anyone even think to carve “GO BROOKS”? Why aren’t golf fans, who revere history more than they revere their own parents, preaching Koepka’s name to the skies?
Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe the reason Brooks Koepka doesn’t get excited about such miracles as claiming the top of the leaderboard in yet another major is because he expects all this to happen. You don’t scream in joy when, say, a text message goes through, do you?
Wearing a multicolored cap that looked like a beach condo’s couch, Koepka on Thursday did what Koepka does in every major these days — started strong to put the oh hell, not this again fear into the field. Like James Holzhauer, the gambler who stormed his way through a delirious month of “Jeopardy” a few weeks back, Koepka specializes in the shock-and-awe, the devastating run that knocks you out of contention before you can even catch your breath. Koepka carded birdies on the first, third, fifth and sixth holes, and the puckering echoed off the cliffs of Pebble Beach.
Koepka is trying to do something that Jack Nicklaus never did, that Tiger Woods never did: Win three straight U.S. Opens. Golf is a sport that reveres its history with religious intensity … and we’ve got someone carving trench lines in that history right here in front of us.
Speaking of history: The only guy ever to win three straight U.S. Opens was a Scotsman named Willie Anderson, who did it from 1903 to 1905 — and the only way you’d know that name is because it’s being mentioned in connection with Koepka now.
Not to take anything away from the esteemed Mr. Anderson — who won his first of three consecutive Opens the same year the Wright brothers took flight — but about all that the U.S. Opens of yore have in common with today’s competition is the name. That 1903 Open was played on a 6,000-yard course, with 85 contestants, and couldn’t even finish on Sunday because the members of the host Baltusrol Country Club wanted to play their course.
Prestigious tournament, huh?
Anderson shot a 73-76-76-82 and won in a playoff, taking home the regal sum of $200, about $5,800 today. Yes, golf loves its history, but even the guy who carded an 11 on the 18th at Pebble Beach on Thursday would win the 1903 U.S. Open by 20 strokes, easy.
So, yes: Let’s give history its proper reverence, but let’s not pretend that it’s in any way comparable to what Koepka is achieving now. Woods went back-to-back in majors three times — but never together — while Jack only did it once. Koepka’s already done it twice, and both streaks are still active. Koepka has more majors than any other active player other than Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy — and he could pass Els and McIlroy and tie Mickelson as early as this Sunday.
“You definitely get more comfortable” with every major, Koepka said. “And I have a lot of confidence, there's no doubt of that. It's becoming easier and easier as I keep playing them.” Uh-oh.
If there’s any solace the rest of the field can take from Koepka’s performance Thursday, it’s this: As easy as Pebble Beach was playing, Koepka could have been ahead by five shots. He left several strokes out on the greens, and Pebble Beach’s narrow fairways and thick rough curbed his usual hammer-of-Thor driving style. After his initial birdie barrage, he actually shot +2 over the final 12 holes, three bogeys and one birdie.
“Considering how I hit it coming in, I'm pretty pleased,” Koepka said. “Two-under, I didn't shoot myself out of it. I'm right there. I feel like if I get off tomorrow, get off to a good start, I'm right back into it.”
When you make your own history, you’re by definition breaking everyone else’s. That’s what Koepka’s doing right now. It might not be much fun to watch, but imagine how tough it’s got to be to play against.
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