SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. (AP) — For a guy who has won all of three PGA Tour events, Brooks Koepka has a golf legacy that already is secure.
That’s how it should be for winning back-to-back U.S. Opens.
Koepka became the first man to turn that impressive trick in nearly three decades by handling a Shinnecock Hills course that varied from beastly to benign. His one-stroke victory Sunday over Tommy Fleetwood even topped Koepka’s first major victory a year ago at Erin Hills.
“I don’t want to say I didn’t think I could do it, but I knew that it was going to be that much more difficult,” Koepka said after closing with a 2-under 68 and a 1-over 281 total. “And to finally do it, it’s much more gratifying the second time. I can really appreciate how hard it is to win a major, and to win back-to-back is special, and my second major is cool.”
Even better is that he won on two different style courses. Erin Hills had spacious fairways. Shinnecock Hills had tighter landing areas and tougher greens. They look nothing alike. Koepka, however, said he felt they played similar.
“Shinnecock plays incredibly tough, and you knew that going in even par was going to be a really good score,” he said. “And it turned out it was almost impossible to shoot even.”
Not in the final round it wasn’t, one day after the USGA conceded it lost a handle on the golf course. While Koepka’s 68 separated him from a four-way tie to start the final round, there were 14 other subpar rounds — including Fleetwood tying the U.S. Open record with a 63 after he missed an 8-foot birdie putt on the final hole.
The easier conditions Sunday allowed a bunch of players to challenge: Koepka’s buddy and playing partner Dustin Johnson, who led or shared the lead in each of the first three rounds; Masters champion Patrick Reed; Saturday co-leaders Tony Finau and Daniel Berger; and Fleetwood.
But the prize went to Koepka, whose composure, confidence and competitiveness served him well. All of those traits came together a year ago, and defined his victory this time.
“This one’s a lot sweeter,” he said.
Lots will be written and said about Koepka, 28, when the U.S. Open heads to Pebble Beach in 2019 and he tries to match Willie Anderson (1903-05) as the only golfer to win three in a row. Koepka has played there once, finishing eighth in the PGA Tour event that uses three courses.
First, though, he’ll travel to Carnoustie for the British Open, where he should feel at home. Koepka spent much of his early pro career in Europe before becoming a PGA Tour regular in 2015.
The final major of the year is the PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis.
Still, questions about the future for Koepka focused on the U.S. Open, in which Curtis Strange was the last to successfully defend in 1989. Strange, who walked the course with Koepka and Johnson as a broadcaster for Fox Sports, believes Koepka can lengthen his streak.
“He’s proven he can win on a classic” course, Strange said. “Hell, I came close, and he’d beat me like a yard dog.”
The pressure the third time is even more extreme, said the only person alive who would know.
“For me, it was,” Strange said. “He looks like water off a duck’s back, both times. I look like I’m wound a little differently. He seems to move right on through life, which is a good thing.”
Koepka is especially appreciative of this good thing because he was sidelined for four months by a wrist injury, only returning in May and missing the cut in a team event in New Orleans. He had a second-place showing at the Colonial in his preparation for Shinnecock Hills.
While not playing or practicing every day wasn’t a big deal to him as he recovered from the wrist injury, not having those competitive juices flowing on the course was.
“I didn’t miss it until I knew I wasn’t going to be at Augusta,” he said. “I missed the preparation. I missed the competitiveness.
“I miss competing. That’s really what it is. I’ve got to be competing at something, it doesn’t matter what it is. I just feel like I need to be back out grinding. I felt like I was missing so much.”
He looked at the shiny U.S. Open trophy sitting on a table next to him.
“I looked at all these names a million times, it felt like, last year, just looking at everybody,” Koepka said. “To have my name on there twice is pretty incredible, and to go back to back is even more extraordinary. It feels so special.”