Clutch Koepka

Winning two majors is for the elite. There was a time when Woods was winning them with regularity and had four such years of multiple majors. Woods remains the only player in history with successive years of multiple majors in 2005 and 2006. Since then, the feat has been accomplished by Padraig Harrington (2008), Rory McIlroy (2014), Jordan Spieth (2015) and Koepka. One reference was to Mark O’Meara, who won two majors — his only two majors — in 1998 at age 41. The difference though is that Koepka already was a U.S. Open champion. And those two majors made it three of the last six that he played, the same rate for Harrington in 2008. The Irish- man, however, was 37 when he won his third major. Koepka is just stepping into his prime. And while he is looked upon as one of the bashers of the golf ball, it’s clear there is more to him than power.

“I think that’s completely wrong,” Koepka said. “You’ve seen it. How many clutch putts have I made coming down the stretch. Look at all these majors. There’s a lot of four- and five-foot par putts where you’re just grinding, grind- ing, grinding away, and I can still somehow get through that. It seems to be those clutch moments where I can turn it on. That’s how I view myself.”

Majors are the measure of greatness, and have been since one Jack Wil- liam Nicklaus set the standard. But if money matters, and winning anywhere still matters, the player who could not be ignored in 2018 was a 25-year-old Californian often referred to as the “Mad Scientist.” That would be Bryson DeChambeau, the physics major who looks at golf differently from anyone else in the modern game. He first came to prominence when he won the NCAA Championship at Southern Methodist University and then the U.S. Amateur in 2015. More than just winning, it was his scientific approach to the game, starting with his single-length clubs. Every club, from the driver to the wedges, was the length of a seven iron. And then it goes deeper than that. DeChambeau talks more about biomechanics than birdies and bogeys. He drops in phrases “spatial awareness” and “standard deviation” and “proprioception.” He withdrew after the first round of the Valspar Championship because “my quadratus lumborum wasn’t working. My illiacus, longissimus thoracis, they were all kind of overworking, if you want to get technical on that.” Looking out at a room of reporters, and realizing they didn’t want to get technical, he smiled and added, “My lower back was hurting.” Got it.

He was No. 99 in the world at the start of the year, his only professional victory in a playoff the year before at the John Deere Classic. He challenged a few times, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the RBC Heritage, and then broke through at the Memorial when, after a three-putt bogey on the 18th hole to fall into a playoff, he made a 12-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole to win. And that was just the start. He was dialed in at Ridgewood Country Club to start the FedExCup Playoffs, shot 63 in the third round and won by four. The next week at the TPC Boston, he shot another 63 in the third round and closed with a 67 for a comfortable victory in the Dell Technologies Championship. That elevated him to the top of the FedExCup, but that was as far as he got. He was 13 shots behind Woods after two rounds at East Lake, and no one was beating Woods at the Tour Championship, anyway.

DeChambeau added a fourth victory in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas. No other male golfer in 2018 won more times on a single tour, except for Prayad Marksaeng on the Japan Senior PGA Tour. It wasn’t by accident. DeChambeau never thought he was good enough, and so he had to work that much harder. There was one moment in the summer when a camera caught him on the range at Carnoustie, utterly frustrated over the way he was hitting the ball. The video was seen thousands of times. At one point, he crouched and put both hands over his face, leading viewers to believe he was having a mental breakdown. Not true, DeChambeau said. A perfectionist at heart, he gets frustrated all the time when practicing at home. It’s just that no one is watching. They’re watching now.

Still to come for DeChambeau is the biggest events. He has played only 10 majors, three as an amateur, and his best finish was a tie for 15th at Oakmont in 2016. His two FedExCup Playoff victories made him a logical choice for the Ryder Cup, where he lost all three of his matches. He has yet to revolutionize golf, the outlook he had when he first turned pro, but he at least showed that science isn’t hurting him. “I’m a different kind of cat,” he said.

Different is good. Along with his four victories, DeChambeau led the World Money List with $9,231,811.

Justin Rose was second on that list, despite only two victories. Never mind that Rose won more in one day than DeChambeau won all year because of the FedExCup title and its unofficial bonus of $10 million. It capped off a year in which Rose was not often spectacular, but always steady. And just like the previous year, he was at his best toward the end of the season.

His lone PGA Tour victory was the Fort Worth Invitational at Colonial, a tournament he had not played in eight years and put on his schedule to meet the PGA Tour’s “strength of schedule” policy that requires most play- ers to add an event they have not played in the last four years. It worked out beautifully for Rose, who never shot worse than 66, closed with a 64, and easily held off Koepka for his ninth career victory on the PGA Tour.

Whether the 38-year-old Englishman wins enough is for others to debate. What matters to Rose is winning every year, and Colonial made it nine straight years with at least one title, including the Olympic gold medal in Rio.

Perhaps the best measure of his resiliency was The Open Championship. It was late Friday afternoon at Carnoustie, and Rose seemed destined to miss the cut in a major for the third straight year. He was 18 feet from going home when he made the birdie putt on the 18th hole to make the cut on the number. One day later, he was five shots out of the lead after a bogey- free round in calm conditions for a 64. He closed with a 69, and when all the damage was done, that was good enough for a four-way tie for second. A moral victory? Perhaps. More than anything, he accumulated a lot more World Ranking points than he imagined when he stood over that 18-foot putt on Friday night, and it eventually would take him all the way to the top.

Rose did miss the cut at the start of the FedExCup Playoffs, and all that did was send him to his best stretch of the year. He headed home to the Bahamas for six days, not showing up at the TPC Boston until the night before the opening round. It gave him time to reflect on the previous 12 months. Dating to the previous year, Rose ran off 10 straight top-10s. At the end of those 12 months, he had 18 finishes in the top 10 over 24 tourna- ments. “I’m proud of that consistency. But I now feel I can … put that nice run behind me and just start fresh now with fresh goals for the rest of the season,” he said. One of those was winning. Another was reaching No. 1. He got both.

Rose finished second to DeChambeau that week. In the next Playoff event, the rain-soaked BMW Championship at Aronimink, Rose took a one-shot lead into the final round and was still leading by one on the 72nd hole when his 15-foot par putt for the victory spun hard around the back of the cup. In the sudden-death playoff, Rose left a putt from the fringe about five feet short, and missed the par putt, which made Keegan Bradley a winner. The consolation for Rose: That runner-up finish was enough for him to reach No. 1 in the world after 20 years and 525 tournaments worldwide as a pro. “We did it Dad … World Number 1,” Rose tweeted that night. The words were accompanied by a photo of Rose pointing to the sky when he won the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. It was a touching tribute to his father, Ken, who died of leukemia in September 2002. That day Rose reached No. 1 was the anniversary of his father’s death, a day the son never forgets. “To get to world No. 1 … it’s something I can say now in my career I’ve been the best player in the world. I’ve been to the top of the game.” For so much of
the rest of the year, he stayed there.

Yes, the No. 1 ranking became a game of musical chairs with Koepka. But just like the previous year, Rose was never far from the lead at just about any tournament he played. The runner-up finish at the Dell Technologies Championship was the start of seven straight tournaments in which Rose never finished worse than eighth, and that was in the British Masters where he was the unofficial host. The run included two runner-up finishes, two third-place finishes and another victory at the Turkish Airlines Open. What ended the streak was what kept him from ending the year at No. 1, which was his tie for 15th in the Indonesia Masters. And there was a tie for fourth at the Tour Championship that was particularly meaningful.

Even as Woods was pulling away at East Lake, there was another battle getting far less attention — the FedExCup. Rose was in the best position to claim the big bonus until he started dropping shots and dropping out of the picture. He made four bogeys in a nine-hole stretch that briefly made it a mathematical possibility for Woods to have a bigger day than he imagined. Rose, however, steadied himself for one last birdie. It gave him a 73 and the FedExCup title over Woods, a difference of $7 million. Where did the FedExCup fall into his list of achievements? “As a kid, I would have said I’m a major champion, that was the most important to me,” Rose said. “The Olympic gold medal has become as important to me just based upon people’s reaction to it and how special it’s felt. Reaching world No. 1 has become a third string to my bow if I’m to simplify my career. And now FedExCup champion would be right there. I now have a four-string guitar. I’m now a bass player. Hopefully, I can kind of add a few more strings. Would be nice to end up with a harp. Yeah, this is obviously right up there with everything I’ve achieved.” The only thing those four late bogeys cost him at East Lake was the No. 1 ranking, which went back to Dustin Johnson.

Dustin Johnson didn’t fare well in the majors, either, and the next two years might be enough to change the conversation from the best talent in the game to a guy who should have won more majors. At age 34, with his length and completeness of game through the wedges, he still only has that 2016 U.S. Open. Johnson is known as much for his bad fortune in the majors, and he added to that reputation at Shinnecock Hills. Still unclear is whether his putter went cold or the super slick greens at Shinnecock Hills on Saturday afternoon at the U.S. Open were too much for anyone. On a set-up that even the USGA conceded was over the top, he lost a four-shot lead with a 77, went into the final round in a four-way tie and couldn’t keep up with Koepka.

To ask Johnson to review 2018 would get a look of indifference until realizing it wasn’t all bad. Starting out as the No. 1 player, he won the Sentry Tournament of Champions by eight shots and seemingly was on his way. The loss at Pebble Beach to Ted Potter, Jr. was a setback, sure. But he was so good that even his ordinary golf brought respectable results. Starting with the 2017 BMW Championship, Johnson had 14 consecutive starts worldwide in which he didn’t finish lower than a tie for 17th in stroke play. His problem was closing out tournaments on the wrong weeks, at least as it relates to the majors.

Johnson tuned up for the U.S. Open by winning the FedEx St. Jude Classic by six shots, with an exclamation point at the end. He had the tournament won when Johnson holed out with a wedge on his final shot for eagle. That made him the clear favorite at Shinnecock Hills, and it looked as though it would pan out that way until the weekend. Then, he missed the cut at The Open. But a week later, Johnson overpowered Glen Abbey and won the RBC Canadian Open by three shots for his third victory of the year, and the 19th in his 11 years on the PGA Tour. He brought that game to the World Golf Championships – Bridgestone Invitational, where he finished third with a closing 64, but it didn’t travel well to St. Louis for the PGA Championship, or any of the four FedExCup Playoff events.

Johnson now has gone three consecutive years with at least three victories. For the last 30 months, he has been no lower than No. 3 in the World Ranking, and his 81 weeks at No. 1 is the longest behind only Woods, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Rory McIlroy. Three PGA Tour titles, No. 4 on the World Money List with a third straight year of at least $8 million in earnings, and to ask how his year went brought reluctant acknowledgement that it wasn’t bad. So many others would take it and run.


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