It was fitting that the 100th PGA Championship was contested on a golf course with all the design variety of a boxing ring. Sunday’s slugfest deserved to be conducted under the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules rather than the U.S. Golf Association’s.
Brooks Koepka confirmed himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion with his second major victory of the year and third in six starts, having sat out the Masters with a wrist injury. His was a decisive win, but it was a win on points.
This was no knockout. The greatest of them all, a man who has been punch drunk and on the ropes for several years, was still on his feet, and until his very last shot was throwing haymakers with a ferocity not seen in a decade.
Tiger Woods faced numerous obstacles beginning this comeback, not least the durability of his body and his game. But the most daunting hurdle is his opposition, a generation unburdened by the scar tissue he inflicted on their elders. Its poster child is Koepka, a pure athlete possessed of the most intimidating arsenal in golf: raw power, bulletproof self-belief and an unflappable demeanor.
Koepka is what Woods once was.
“Looking where I was, sitting on my couch watching the Masters, and to think I would do this, I would have laughed at you and told you there was no way, no chance,” Koepka said Sunday night.
Even in the warm glow of victory, the champion knew there were two stories.
“Other than me, my team, everybody was rooting for Tiger,” he said. “As they should. He’s the greatest player to ever play the game, and to have the comeback that he’s having is incredible.
“Second place sucks,” Woods once famously declared, but that wasn’t a sentiment he held to at Bellerive. Asked had he ever felt so good after a tournament he didn’t win, he replied, “Not for a while, no.”
His eight-birdie 64 was the lowest final round he’s ever produced in his storied major championship career. It fell short of victory but electrified the huge galleries. As the day wore on, there wasn’t a person on the sprawling property who didn’t know the king was back in the palace. Not yet on the throne perhaps, but in the court.
Nothing jolts life into a major like a Woods charge. We saw that last month in the British Open at Carnoustie, where he briefly grabbed the final-round lead before stumbling to a tie for sixth.
A similar run seemed perilously unlikely Thursday morning, when Woods was 3 over par after just two holes. But the same characteristics that defined his peak – brilliance, grit, pride – helped him claw his way back into the arena and ultimately into the ring against Koepka for the title bout.
“It was kind of the first time Tiger’s been in contention and I’ve been in contention at the same time,” Koepka said. “The fans definitely let you know what he was doing.”
That’s rioting in understatement.
“You could hear the roars from different parts of the golf course,” said Justin Thomas, the defending champion who had a share of the lead on the back nine but faltered to a T-6 finish. “It’s pretty apparent what a Tiger roar is versus anybody else. So I knew he was making noise.”
Woods has made noise several times this year, playing himself into the mix late on Sundays. But too often the only similarity between New Tiger and the Tiger of old seemed to be the red shirt in Monday’s laundry. He has shown frailty under pressure. But not at Bellerive.
He was erratic off the tee in the final round, not finding a single fairway until the 10th hole. It scarcely mattered. Woods rained approach shots on pins with the accuracy of drone strikes and required only 10 putts through the turn.
By day’s end he had needed only 23, the last of which – a 19-footer gutted for birdie – rocked the stands surrounding the 18th green. It hardly mattered to fans that it already was clear his improbable run would come up short.
After pounding a drive 334 yards at the 15th, Koepka drained a birdie putt from 10 feet. One hole later he demonstrated that his power comes not from one club alone with a 247-yard gem to 6 feet. Another birdie. The killing thrust.
“I hit a laser right at the flag. That will probably go down as one of the best shots I’ve ever hit under pressure,” the champion said.
“Huge shot,” said Adam Scott, who was tied for the lead with Koepka going to the 15th tee but who settled for third place. “That’s how you win these things. You step up and hit a great shot at the right time.”
“He’s a tough guy to beat when he’s hitting it 340 in the air. Three-twenty in the air is like a chip shot,” Woods said afterward, sounding eerily like the veterans who first faced his artillery two decades ago. “That’s the new game.”
On Sunday night at a major championship, news morphs into history as soon as the engraver sets to work. The inscription on the Wanamaker Trophy will read simply “Brooks Koepka, Bellerive Country Club.” Nothing about the epic crowds or the intoxicating leaderboard. No mention of the men condemned to a winter of discontent until the gates open at the shabby end of Magnolia Lane 242 days from now.
Men like Jordan Spieth, who came here seeking the career Grand Slam but couldn’t survive his trademark tendency to mix thrilling runs with shocking pratfalls. He finished T-12 thanks to a closing 66.
Or Dustin Johnson, the World No. 1, whose driver can reduce courses to pitch-and-putt, but whose mantelpiece still holds just one major trophy – a pauper-like return given his wealth of talent. He opened 67-66 but spent Saturday in reverse and Sunday in neutral.
Two-time champion Rory McIlroy arrived in St. Louis searching for a swing and left empty-handed, his major drought destined to enter a fifth season.
“It’s been a year where there’s been glimpses of showing what I can do, but I just haven’t done it often enough,” he said after a closing 70 and a T-50 finish. McIlroy was asked how he would remember this major campaign, during which he challenged at the Masters and finished T-2 at the British Open.
“Probably won’t,” he said with a resigned laugh. “I mean, I don’t think there was anything all that memorable about it.”
Only a few competitors leave Bellerive with positives, if not the silverware. Scott broke a long run of lousy results, even if he did ultimately remind us that he has a swing that makes men drool but a putting stroke that makes them weep.
And Woods, of course.
The cheer with which he greeted second place reflected not just his professional struggles but also his hard-won perspective.
“I don’t want to talk to them about it this week,” he said when asked what he’d tell his kids about his Sunday heroics. “They’re not really interested in it because they’re nervous about starting school. So that takes far more precedence than me playing a major.”
How did he feel after the round?
“Tired and hungry,” he said. The fans knew that though, having seen the hunger of a man who hasn’t been fed what he most craves in a decade.
Tens of thousands of people streamed into the St. Louis night having been treated to a thrilling brawl. Among them was the man with silverware who stood alone astride the golf world. Somewhere else in that crowd was a man who used to be up there. He didn’t leave with a trophy, but he does have something almost as precious: the knowledge that in the extreme heat of a major championship he can again summon the player he once was, and that he might be again.
Golfweek, August 12, 2018.