Brooks Koepka grinds to sweet repeat at U.S. Open

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Bob Koepka gave a television interview last year on Father’s Day from his home in Atlantis, Fla. Erin Hills, Wis., isn’t the most convenient spot in the world to get to, and Bob didn’t want to jinx things when son Brooks worked his way into contention. When asked if his son winning a major was the best Father’s Day present he could receive, Bob said “Yeah, until next year.”

Truer words were never spoken. Bob sat off to the side of the 18th green one year later and gave a thumbs up as Brooks negotiated an awkward shot from left of the green. He needed only a bogey on the last to become the seventh player in history and first since Curtis Strange in 1989 to repeat at the U.S. Open. This time when it was over, Bob wrapped his arms around his strapping son at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and soaked in the full weight of the moment.

“The first time was amazing, and now I’m speechless,” he said, walking up toward America’s first clubhouse.

One day after the U.S. Golf Association took a beating for pushing shiny Shinny to the edges, Tommy Fleetwood went bonkers, posting a record-tying 63 that put the field on notice. As the long-haired Englishman sat in the players’ grill room at 2 over with his young son, Frankie, on his lap, World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Koepka grinded on a spectacular day in The Hamptons.

Koepka’s gritty 68 – which he said felt even sweeter than last year’s closing 67 – gave him a one-stroke victory over Fleetwood and a 281 total, two ahead of his buddy DJ.

“I looked at all these names a million times it felt like last year, just looking at everybody,” Brooks said of the trophy. “To have my name on there twice is pretty incredible, and to go back to back is even more extraordinary. It feels so special.”

Last year the storyline centered around whether or not newbie Erin Hills was enough of a test. This year even the USGA admitted to making one of America’s most celebrated originals over-the-top tough.

Did the USGA lose the golf course? Koepka called it borderline. Depending on the gust of wind, sometimes it was, he said, maybe it wasn’t. Whatever.

“I got this thing,” Koepka said looking at the trophy, “so I don’t care.”

One thing is certain, no one will ever question if Koepka’s victory at Erin Hills was a U.S. Open one-off because of its non-traditional nature.

“He won on a classic,” Strange said. “So he’s an Open player.”

Instructor Claude Harmon III thinks this new generation of players – Johnson and Koepka in particular – represent a different type of U.S. Open champion. Johnson and Koepka, two friends who share the same instructor, trainer, body type and demeanor, have won the past three U.S. Open titles and were paired together in the penultimate group Sunday. They didn’t speak outside of a one-liner on the third hole that even Koepka can’t remember. The pair of cool customers went about their business in a flat-lined approach.

“We’re used to Curtis Strange winning U.S. Opens because he hit it straight, because he was a steely competitor, because he was one of the enforcers on the PGA Tour,” Harmon said. “That he was going to fight you and stare you down. The younger generation of players, rightly or wrongly, the game has evolved into they just do what they do. They don’t care what the golf course is, they don’t care if they’re not supposed to win.”

Koepka long has felt like an overlooked player, though he could “care less” about it. He wants to be where Johnson currently sits, on top of the world, and believes his friend is one of the best to ever play the game.

“I think they both feed off of each other’s work ethic,” Bob said. “If they’re in the gym and Brooks lifts it 12 times, D.J. lifts it 13. Brooks will come back and do 14 the next time.”

There was a time not long ago that Koepka wasn’t sure if he’d even be in the field at Shinnecock. Doctors diagnosed a partially torn tendon in his left wrist that required a four-month break. Koepka, who was in a soft cast all the way up to his elbow, didn’t start hitting wedges and 9-irons until Monday after the Masters. He tweaked the injury again at The Players in May.

Harmon thinks the break gave Koepka a new outlook on the game. Even the fact that he watched the Masters told Harmon something had changed.

“For someone like Brooks who has never been a golf nerd,” said Harmon, “I think he fell in love with golf again.”

Brooks said he mostly missed the competitiveness. He felt out of the loop.

“I mean, to be honest with you, I think the only people I ever saw were Dustin, obviously, seeing him quite a bit back home, and Bubba and Phil,” Brooks said. “Those are the only guys that texted me. You make a lot of friends out here, and you feel like a lot of them, you just get forgotten.”

Eight months ago, Brooks’ stepmother booked a place about five miles from Shinnecock. The couple arrived in New York eight days ago to watch Justify take the Triple Crown at the 150th Belmont Stakes. Bob walked all 72 holes at Shinnecock, over-the-moon at the chance to watch his son share in a piece of golf history.

Off to the side of the sixth hole Sunday, Bob could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as he reflected on what it felt like at this time last year. He thought about how proud his own parents would be. He choked up at the memory.

Brooks’ great-uncle Dick Groat, who won two World Series titles as a shortstop with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was the one who introduced golf to Bob at Champion Lakes Golf Club in Ligonier, Pa., after his own college baseball career ended. Bob, a former pitcher, never let his two sons win at anything, whether it was cards, hoops or golf. He’d often challenge Brooks on the practice putting green. Loser does the dishes. (Of course, he was going to do the dishes anyway, whether he made it or not, Bob said.)

“I remember when (Brooks) was 12, he had never beaten me, and I think we both parred the first hole and he birdied the second or parred it and he had a grin on his face,” Bob recalled. “I said, ‘Don’t even go there.’ My college baseball coach always told me, ‘Don’t ever wake a sleeping dog.’ I think I birdied the next four holes and by the eighth hole I had him in tears. About two weeks later, he turned around and beat me. The rest is history.”

For a second year in a row, Chase Koepka was preparing to fly to Germany on Sunday night to compete on the European Tour when his older brother won a major. Both brothers often went home pouting, Brooks said, because they couldn’t beat dad on the golf course.

Now, Bob grinds on every shot with his son from outside the ropes, but he’s not falling apart with nerves. Brooks declared himself the most confident man in the field this week, and dad shared in that sentiment.

“Two years in a row I haven’t gotten him anything (for Father’s Day),” said Brooks, grinning. “Next year, I’m not going to get him anything either.”

A tradition that for tonight, at least, must feel more like a dream.

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