Long road: Koepka's journey now includes a US Open title
ERIN, Wis. (AP) — The list of places Brooks Koepka had to go to win golf tournaments looks like a page straight out of a travelogue.
Spain. Scotland. Turkey. Japan.
On Sunday, he added Erin Hills in Wisconsin to the list — the stop that made all those frequent flier miles worth it.
The 27-year-old American, who had to leave his home country and join Europe's minor-league tour to get his career going, won the U.S. Open. He set aside the wind and the pressure to subdue Erin Hills after it finally got some teeth following three rounds of soft greens and prime scoring conditions.
The wind kicked up, but it didn't faze Koepka. He shot 5-under par and made only one bogey to finish at 16-under 272. That was four shots clear of Hideki Matsuyama and Brian Harman. The only drama at the end was whether he'd make birdie on the par-5 18th to break Rory McIlroy's scoring record in relation to par.
Koepka settled for a tap-in par, but that didn't matter. He earned $2.16 million, his nation's championship and the comfort of knowing the far-flung trips to Kenya and Kazakhstan and India and beyond are all in the rearview mirror.
"To get to travel the world at 22, 21 years old, and do what you do for a living is pretty neat," Koepka said. "I'll go anywhere. ... I think it helped me grow up a little bit and really figure out that, hey, play golf, get it done, and then you can really take this somewhere. And I built a lot of confidence off of that."
His confidence in the final round came, in part, from a short conversation the night before with Dustin Johnson, a friend who had been through his share of close calls and heartbreaks before finally becoming a major champion at the U.S. Open last year.
Take the shots one at a time, Johnson told him.
Turns out, they think pretty much the same. Play the same, too.
"He's going to overpower golf courses, and he's got a great demeanor," said Bill Haas, who finished tied for fifth. "He's just like Dustin, I would say. They're very much a similar player, where nothing seems to bother them. And it's no surprise."
Tied for the lead with six holes left, Koepka made an 8-foot par putt on 13 that gave him confidence in his putting stroke. He followed that up with birdies on the next three holes.
Only Matsuyama displayed that kind of scoring ability Sunday. But he started the day six shots out of the lead. His round of 66 was over nearly 90 minutes before Koepka strolled to the 18th green, with the tournament all but wrapped up.
"I learned a lot this week," Matsuyama said. "Hopefully, though, in the future, in majors, I can play in the either last or next-to-last group to give myself a better chance."
Other than him, nobody made a charge.
Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas were the popular favorites. But Thomas followed his record-setting 63 with a 75, and his hopes were essentially dashed after three bogeys over the first five holes. Fowler shot 72 and finished at 10 under, in a tie for fifth. It's a score that would've won all but two of the previous 116 renditions of the U.S. Open.
But not this one.
Erin Hills never quite shaped up as the exacting, U.S. Open-type course it could have been. It was long — the longest in U.S. Open history — and the fescue lining the fairways was brutal. But the fairways were generous and the wind that serves as the course's best defense didn't kick up until the end.
"It would be a lot of fun to see this place firm and fast," Fowler said.
Hard to think it would've bothered Koepka, who has seen a lot.
Upon getting out of Florida State, he was without a card on any tour, so went onto the Challenge Tour, which is Europe's version of the Web.com Tour.
Asked about the low point, he said it came one night in Scotland when he called his agent and said he wanted to come home.
"I was kind of, I don't want to say homesick, it was just, tired of golf. Tired of traveling. I just wanted to be home," he said.
He won that tournament, made it to the regular European Tour, and then made it home to the PGA Tour. He came into the U.S. Open with one Ryder Cup appearance under his belt, and three top-five finishes in majors. More than worrying about the uncertainty of his career, he was trying to figure a way to close one of these big ones out.
He did it. Now, his journey includes a victory in Wisconsin — in the U.S. Open, no less.
"I'd love to get a map and just look at all the places I've won," Koepka said. "It's pretty cool."
Steve Stricker, Jordan Spieth finish strong at US Open
ERIN, Wis. (AP) — Some of the loudest cheers at the U.S. Open were reserved for a guy who never really challenged the leaders.
Wisconsin golf fans love home-state favorite Steve Stricker.
He had a pretty good final round, too, shooting a 3-under 69. His 5-under 283 was his lowest score to par in his 20 U.S. Open appearances.
There was one last ovation as he walked off the 18th green after putting for par in the first Open to be held in Wisconsin.
"It was really cool. Yeah, I don't get those very often," Stricker said. "And to play well today on top of it was extra special."
Stricker was rolling down the back end of the back nine, with three birdies between the 14th and 17th holes. He came up short at the par-4-15th , when a 23-foot putt stopped right on the edge of the cup. Stricker tapped in for par.
"Yeah, that would have been nice to get. But can't complain the way I finished it off," Stricker said.
He's not slowing down either.
After turning 50 this year, Stricker gets to play in the PGA Tour Champions event that he will host in Madison next weekend, the American Family Insurance Championship.
He's not sure if his wife, Nicki, will repeat as his caddie next week, though.
"She's hurting, I don't know if she'll be able to caddie next week," he said. "But she did well. We had a lot of fun together again."
SPIETH SHINE: This is more like it for Jordan Spieth at a major.
He shot a 69 to finish at 1 over for the tournament.
Spieth was well off the lead, but seemed to be feeling much better with his game after shooting 76 in the third round. It was an especially good day for Spieth considering how the wind picked up at Erin Hills.
"Yeah, no doubt. I thought it was a fantastic round of golf, given what we were dealing with to start the day," the fifth-ranked player in the world said.
When asked to rate his confidence level, Spieth assigned himself a "B," though he graded himself at an "A" with his putter .
"I feel really good about just about everything else," Spieth said. "I've just got to get on the greens and have that cup start to look a bit bigger."
AMATEUR HOUR: Scottie Scheffler was the low amateur, shooting a 73 to finish at 1 under.
This has been quite the confidence-building experience for the 20-year-old who plays at Texas. He was the only amateur to qualify out of the tough Columbus, Ohio, sectional.
His sister, Callie, served as his caddie at Erin Hills.
"Being an amateur in the U.S. Open is very cool," Scheffler said.
Cameron Champ, the only other amateur to make the cut, shot a 76 to finish at even par.
THE BIG EASY: Weekend rain softened the greens at Erin Hills. When the wind picked up Sunday, Ernie Els thought of another major championship.
"Today is more like a British Open but they were soft conditions," the Big Easy said. He shot a 74 to finish at 7 over at Erin Hills, well off the lead.
"So you had to play different shots and the wind is really blustery out there."
The 47-year-old South African has played in just about every imaginable condition over a 23-year PGA Tour career.
It has been 20 years since Els won the U.S. Open at Congressional, when he held off Colin Montgomerie by a stroke. He also won the Open in 1994, as well as the British Open in 2002 and 2012.
That victory five years ago at Royal Latham was his last tour win. His five-year exemption in the majors is running out this year.
But Els seems at peace with where he is at in his career.
"I've played 25 of them, and if I play another great. If not, it's fine. It's been a good ride," the popular Els said while signing autographs for fans.
"Maybe something happens in the next couple of months, win something to get into it for next year," Els added. "So if that doesn't happen, it's been good. It's been really good."
THEY'RE IN: Top-10 finishes at Erin Hills will allow Xander Schauffele and Trey Mullinax to return to the U.S. Open next year.
No need to go through qualifying for Shinnecock Hills, after having to travel that route to arrive at Erin Hills.
Mullinax shot 68 on Sunday to tie for ninth at 8 under, eight shots behind winner Brooks Koepka. Mullinax qualified out of the Memphis, Tennessee, sectional.
Schauffele shot 69 to tie for fifth at 10 under in his first U.S. Open. He also qualified out of Memphis, surviving a five-man playoff for one of the final two spots.
Asked about avoiding sectional qualifying next year, Schauffele said, "That's another thing I didn't know. Thank you."
HAIL THE KING: The 18th hole at Erin Hills had a special flag for the final round of the U.S. Open.
The flag commemorated the late Arnold Palmer's win at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. It featured a silhouette of Palmer in mid-stride, tossing his visor in the air. Palmer shot a 65 after going into the final round trailing by seven shots.
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