U.S. Open even better second time around for Koepka

Brooks Koepka is U.S. Open champion.

Repeat, Brooks Koepka is U.S. Open champion.

Just in case you didn’t get the message the first time, when Koepka went to Erin Hills in Wisconsin in 2017 and bludgeoned the Open field, he showed up at Shinnecock Hills Sunday and, in a little different method, did it all over again. OK, we get it.

Mr. Koepka is also Mr. Clutch.

He also is the first defending champion since Curtis Strange in 1989 to win this thing again, and the sixth player overall to go back-to-back. Fittingly, Strange accompanied Koepka every step of Sunday at an on-course reporter for Fox TV. And was there to hug him at the end.

The sequel might just be better than the original.

“I don’t want to say I didn’t think it could (win a second Open),” Koepka said, “but I knew it would be harder the second time.

“It’s much more gratifying the second time.”

Koepka has gone as low as anyone ever has in an event that seems to take birdies personally – finishing 16 under at Erin Hills. And he now has done it in the traditional fashion, thriving when each stroke was like a tooth extraction. Koepka is quickly running out of variations on the theme of winning this particular major championship.

Shooting 67 Sunday, finishing 1 over for the tournament, Koepka was one stroke better than Tommy Fleetwood. The hirsute Brit tried to steal away with this title while all the third-round leaders were just working up a first decent sweat.

Fleetwood started the day six shots behind those leaders, and teed off nearly two-and-a-half hours before the final twosome. But shooting a U.S. Open-record-tying low round of 63 is a ground-gainer and game-changer.

“But I wanted 62,” Fleetwood said after just missing an eight-footer for birdie on No. 18.

Indeed, it would have taken something historic to derail a player who is dangerously close to gaining a reputation for being an ultimate Open closer.

“The U.S. Open takes so much discipline,” he said. “You have to be a great putter and just kind of let things roll off your back. That is something we do pretty well,” Koepka said.

“I enjoy the test. I enjoy being pushed to the limit.”

Fleetwood posted his score and patiently waited for Koepka to come back to him. He’s still waiting. And will keep waiting at least until next year’s Open at Pebble Beach.

After three days of Fox slow-motion shots of sod in flight, of a golfing icon swatting at a moving golf ball like it was skittering cockroach, of greens turned to cast iron skillets and scores that hurt to look at, it was time to put up something resembling intriguing golf.

While others chaffed about the course conditions, Fleetwood kept his head down, his mouth shut and remained in grind mode. At one point Friday he was 7 over and teetering on the brink of missing the cut. But he knows a thing or two about the persistence it requires to win one of these things.

Off early Sunday, Fleetwood commenced to give the rest of them a seminar on the possibilities. He could look back at made putts of 57, 30, 21, 19 and 17 feet among his eight birdies Sunday.

What a difference a day made. All the talk of Shinnecock being reclassified as the 10th circle of hell was calmed by the caress of kinder conditions Sunday. The field put up 184 birdies Sunday, compared to just 113 Saturday. The expectation of scoring was much higher.

In a four-way tie for the lead at the start, Koepka gained separation with three birdies over his opening five holes. The story wasn’t so much in how he gained that toehold atop the leaderboard as how he kept it.

Good buddies – and Misters January and February in any future PGA Tour fitness calendar – Koepka and Dustin Johnson teed off together in the penultimate twosome Sunday. The putting troubles that showed themselves Saturday followed Johnson into the final round (57th in strokes gained putting in the 67-player field Sunday). The prohibitive favorite just two days ago could not challenge.

The last twosome of Sunday, made up of the comeback kids Tony Finau and Daniel Berger, who had rallied from 45th place the day before, could muster but token resistance. Both bogeyed two of their first three holes, and never quite recovered. Finau shot a 2 over 72 and finished in fifth, one place ahead of Berger (73).

Masters champion Patrick Reed was quite another story. As he birdied five of his first seven holes, shooting 31 on front, he momentarily tied Koepka for the lead. Visions of contending for the grail of the Grand Slam were fleeting. His 37 on the back side exhausted his bid.

Koepka couldn’t be at the last major, the one Reed won this year, as he was healing up from an injured wrist. As he slashed about this week in the high fescue, he never betrayed a hint of old problems.

Down the stretch, Koepka’s challenge was to somehow stay in front of Fleetwood, a player already comfortable in the clubhouse. Toward that goal, one of the most important holes may have been the bogey Koepka took on the par 3 11th.

Blowing his tee shot well over the green, Koepka’s hack from the high grass sent his next shot across the green and into a deep bunker. He did well to blast out to seven feet. He did better to make the putt. “I would have taken five on that hole looking at where we were,” he said.

For his next escape, on the par 4 12th, Koepka deftly chipped on from more high grass behind that green to six feet. “It was something I didn’t think I could do – I was dead,” he said. And then made that saving putt, too.

The hammer came on the par 5 16th, when with a birdie he built a two-shot cushion, cozying his third shot to four feet.

Nothing to do but admire the result.

“You’re the champion until proven otherwise,” Finau said. “He definitely played like a champion this week.”

When earlier in the week Koepka proclaimed that no one on the grounds was more confident than he was, it might have come off as a bit brash. Sunday in the fading light of his second straight U.S. Open championship, it took on the steady glow of hard fact.

As Koepka said Saturday night, “You got to have some grit, some heart. I mean, I've won one. So why not win another?”