ERIN, Wis. – Bob Koepka first took his son Brooks to the golf course when he was only 3 days old. It was on a par 3 at Wycliffe Golf and Country Club in Wellington, Fla., that Bob struck a solid 4-iron just past the hole. Holding Brooks in his right arm, Bob poured in the birdie putt and looked down at his newborn son: “There’s your first birdie, kid.”
Brooks played it all growing up: golf, baseball, soccer, roller hockey, basketball. Bob couldn’t have possibly imagined that 27 years and 15 days after that indelible birdie putt, Brooks would hoist the U.S. Open trophy for his first major victory – on Father’s Day.
“This will make up for the card I didn’t get him,” Brooks joked.
Here in the middle of Nowheresville, USA, where silos outnumber Starbucks, 156 of the world’s finest descended upon the unknown. Erin Hills architect Dana Fry, keenly aware of what happened the last time the USGA took its crown jewel to an unproven venue, gave an honest answer to his biggest fear at the 117th U.S. Open: A bad review “could have ruined my career.”
The opposite held true, as player after player sang the praises of Erin Hills. One player in particular can’t wait to return: The strapping Koepka, who closed with 67 for 272 and matched the championship record of 16 under par set by Rory McIlroy six years ago at Congressional Country Club. In all, a record 31 players finished under par for the week. “I feel like I was playing some of the best golf I’ve ever played,” said Koepka, stating what was obvious to all who gathered on the natural grandstands in America’s heartland.
Koepka tapped in for par on the 72nd hole and punched the air briefly. Seconds later, he and his girlfriend, Jena Sims, climbed into their Club Car chariot, where the enormity of the situation sunk in on the way to scoring. He’d won by four strokes over Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama, essentially sprinting away from the field, though it looked more like a casual Sunday stroll with three consecutive birdies on Nos. 14-16.
“He’s just really, really chilled out,” caddie Ricky Elliott said. “Brooks sometimes could do with a little bit of a kick in the ass. Are you awake yet?”
There’s a striking resemblance between Koepka and good friend Dustin Johnson, who won the 2016 U.S. Open. They share the same swing coach, trainer and personal chef at the majors. Even their casual-yet-confident gait looks familiar.
Koepka, who competed at Erin Hills in the 2011 U.S. Amateur, came to Wisconsin with instructor Claude Harmon III after the Memorial Tournament, and they walked 18 holes with a local caddie.
“Typical Brooks, very similar to DJ, he didn’t remember one hole (from 2011),” Harmon said.
“Once we saw what the setup was and how length could be his advantage, I think he knew that if he just didn’t have any train wrecks out there that he was going to have an opportunity.”
Harmon noted that Koepka came into his fifth U.S. Open driving the ball better than ever. In fact, it was identical to the way Johnson drove it last year at Oakmont.
World No. 1 Johnson even called Koepka on Saturday evening and told him to stick with the game plan. Koepka said he thought about the call on No. 14.
Majors increase the level of Koepka’s focus, which explains in part how he was able to avoid posting a double-bogey all week. Koepka dropped only one shot on the back nine the entire week.
He led the field in greens in regulation, hitting 62 of 72; ranked seventh in driving distance at 322.1; and tied for fourth in driving accuracy at 87.5 percent. On the closing par-5 18th Sunday, Koepka hit a 373-yard tee shot with a 3-wood.
As Fox announcer Paul Azinger put it: “This isn’t your father’s U.S. Open.”
Speaking of dads, Bob comes out to about half a dozen of Brooks’ events a year. This one wasn’t particularly convenient and didn’t fit into the schedule. Even when Brooks worked his way into contention, a superstitious Bob didn’t want to jinx things.
Instead, Bob watched Golf Channel in the morning, went over to his club in Atlantis, Fla., and had lunch with his buddies. Then he watched the action unfold from his living room.
Bob woke up with a good feeling and told Brooks as much before he teed off.
“Just don’t come home without the trophy,” Bob said.
Koepka took an unusual route to the PGA Tour, starting out on the Challenge Tour in Europe.
When Koepka was on the brink of earning his European Tour card (quite literally the night before he won his third Challenge Tour event), he called agent Blake Smith and told him he wanted to go home. He was tired of golf, tired of traveling.
The low point didn’t last, however, as he went on to the European Tour and won the 2014 Turkish Airlines Open, followed by the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open on the PGA Tour. He went on to post a 3-1-0 record at the 2016 Ryder Cup but still came into this week’s U.S. Open, his 15th major start, feeling like an underachiever.
“I just felt like I should be winning more,” Koepka said. “I don’t know why. It’s one of those things, not a big fan of losing, I don’t think anyone out here is. And I just couldn’t stand the fact that I’d won only once.”
Everything surely feels different now. Koepka said he’d like to get a map to pinpoint all the places he has won around the world. Interestingly, while Koekpa was taking care of business in Wisconsin, younger brother Chase was on a plane to Denmark, trying to make his own mark on the world.
Athletic genes run deep Koepka’s family. His great-uncle Dick Groat won two World Series titles as a shortstop with the Pittsburgh Pirates and was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1960. Groat also was college basketball’s national player of the year (1952) at Duke and was drafted as a guard for the Fort Wayne Pistons.
It was Groat who built a golf club in western Pennsylvania, eight miles from Arnold Palmer’s Latrobe. Bob Koepka picked up the game at his uncle’s Champion Lakes Golf Club in Ligonier after his own college baseball career ended.
An emotional Groat was glued to the television all afternoon in Pennsylvania watching his great-nephew. Bob called Groat when it was over to say thanks for introducing him to a game that made this Father’s Day unlike any other.
For someone who came into the week feeling like an underachiever, Brooks has been playing golf at a high level for a long time. He won the club championship at Sherbrooke Country Club in Lake Worth, Fla., at ages 13 and 14, beating dad for the title. Because the men’s club champion received a parking spot with the victory, the running joke back then was that the club should install a bicycle rack in the space.
On Sunday, he wheeled into a whole new spot.
(Jeff Babineau and Brentley Romine contributed to this story.)