Brooks Koepka finally came back down to earth. In the third round of the PGA Championship, it was the first time he did not break or set a scoring record. Except that he ended the day with the largest lead — seven strokes — since the PGA switched from match play to stroke play in 1958.
Luke List, one of the four players tied for second, considered all the facts and weighed the possibilities, and concluded, “I think we’re all playing for second.”
Koepka left the second round hoping he would increase his lead in the third, maybe put it out of sight, even. What went wrong? Or more correctly, what spectacular things didn’t he do in the third round that he did in the first two, in that record carnival, when he was shooting the formidable
Bethpage Black in 63-65.
With some tougher pins and some contrary breezes, he shot a par 70 that was pedestrian by his standards — three birdies, three bogeys.
“You don’t hit fairways out here, you’re not going to shoot under par — very simple,” Koepka explained. “I didn’t do a good job of that today. That’s why I shot even par. It’s not easy.”
It looked like more domination by Koepka early on. He birdied Nos. 2 and 5 on short putts, three-putted No. 9 from 28 feet and two-putted the 10th from 18. At the par-five 13th, he came out of the rough to 16 feet and birdied, but at the par-four 16th he missed the fairway, then three-putted
from long range for a bogey. Back to even.
His 70 put him at 12-under 198, and the traffic stacked up behind him, with one familiar face leading the parade — Dustin Johnson. With a wild one-under 69, Johnson inched a stroke closer, to seven behind, joining Harold Varner and Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond at 205, two new faces
in the mix. Bethpage did seem to play a bit tougher. The 67s by Varner and Janewattananond were the low scores on the leaderboard after a scattering of lower ones in the first two rounds.
Varner had a largely uneventful day, posting three birdies. His take included both par-fives. He reached No. 4 in two and two-putted from 41 feet, then holed a 10-footer at the 13th. At the 18th, it was fairway-green-five footer. “I’m super-excited,” Varner said. He had made his second cut in five majors and was tied for second for the first time.
Janewattananond was four under until bogeys at 14 and 17 cooled him, but he was thrilled anyway. “Arrived here on Monday, it was raining,” the young Thai said. “Tuesday was raining. The course plays so tough because the rough was so long, the ball don’t go anywhere. I was having a nightmare.
How am I going to play this golf course? I’m not going to break 80. This exceeds my expectation already.”
Johnson was three under on the front nine, then practically went through hoops for his 69 — six birdies and five bogeys. Of the bogeys, he missed the fairway on four par-four holes and missed the green on a par-three.
“Flag locations, wind — I mean, yeah, it was playing difficult,” Johnson said. “Seemed like every time I got just a little bit out of position, I made bogey.” But he had picked up a stroke on Koepka, now trailing by seven. What would it take in the final round? “I’m going to need some help from him,” Johnson said, “and then I’m going to have to play very, very well.”
Other contenders fell hard by the wayside. Kelly Kraft and Daniel Berger, tied for second after the second round — but eight behind — shot identical 78s. Phil Mickelson also fell hard. He made nine bogeys in his 76. Xander Schauffele was caught in some kind of warp. “I don’t know if the tournament is just less fun because I’m 15 shots back or what,” he said (actually he was nine back after his 68). “No one likes to play for second, but that’s what he’s doing to us.”
Koepka was asked whether there was any doubt that he would win. “No,” he said.
Third-round leaders: Brooks Koepka 70–198, Harold Varner 67–205, Jazz Janewattananond 67–205, Luke List 69–205, Dustin Johnson 69–205, Hideki Matsuyama 68–206, Matt Wallace 70–206, Xander Schauffele 68–207, Patrick Cantlay 68–207.