There was a time during the second round on Friday at the 118th U.S. Open Championship that Brooks Koepka was at 7-over-par and appeared hopelessly out of the race to repeat as champion at this tournament.
But no one believes in himself more that Koepka, and there’s little — not a huge deficit, or a left wrist injury, or even the toughest conditions imaginable in which to play golf on arguably the biggest stage — that can affect that confidence.
Koepka fired a 2-under-par 68 in the final round on Sunday to finish at 1-over-par 281 to capture the title by a stroke over Englishman Tommy Fleetwood at the demanding Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southhampton, N.Y.
Koepka, who won last year at Erin Hills Golf Club in Wisconsin, became the first golfer to take back-to-back U.S. Opens since Curtis Strange accomplished the feat in 1988-89. Koepka is the seventh player to win America’s national championship of golf in consecutive years.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet. This is incredible,” Koepka said in a television interview. “You know, I don’t think I could have dreamed of this — going back-to-back. It’s truly special and I’m so honored.”
Fleetwood carded a 63, becoming the sixth player to record that score at the U.S. Open and just the second to do it in the final round. He teed off almost 2 1/2 hours before — and six strokes behind — third-round leaders Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Daniel Berger and Tony Finau on Sunday and soared up the leaderboard with four consecutive birdies on holes 12, 13, 14 and 15.
Fleetwood missed a nine-foot putt for birdie and a record 62 at the closing hole. His round was even more impressive considering he didn’t birdie either of the layout’s par 5s.
“I honestly never really thought I was out of it,” Fleetwood said after his round. “I just needed a good start. You never know what’s going to happen. Obviously, we knew they would have made it a bit softer today, and looking at the pins, you knew they were going to be more accessible.
“I knew I was kind of in it teeing off, but you still have to get off to that good start. I was 4 under through seven, and it was game on.”
Johnson, who was tied for the lead after the first round and four strokes clear of the field after 36 holes, finished alone in third two shots behind Koepka at 3 over after an even-par 70 in the final round.
Reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed ended up fourth at 4 over after a 68 in the final round, while Finau (72) double-bogeyed the final hole to finish in fifth, another stroke back at 5 over.
After admitting that it went too far with the course setup for Saturday’s third round, USGA officials made some needed modifications for the final round.
In a statement released Sunday morning, the USGA said that it watered Shinnecock Hills’ greens an “appropriate level” and slowed down the putting surfaces.
“Over the four days it almost seemed like there were four different golf courses we played, which is fine.” Reed said. “I don’t mind. And, you know, it’s supposed to be tough out there.
“…You knew that they were going to water the heck out of the greens, that they’re going to be soft. And when that happens, you’re taking out a lot of the bite of the golf course.”
Koepka trailed Johnson by six strokes after the first round and by five after the second round, even after he torched the course for a 66 in the afternoon gloaming. He shot a 72 in nearly unplayable conditions on Saturday when Johnson stumbled to a 77 to climb back into the mix and was steady and often spectacular over the final 18 holes.
“I just had to keep going and give myself a chance,” Koepka said about making up his huge Friday deficit. “I made a couple of birdies, and I was able to make up a lot of ground. I felt like I was hitting it well and putting it well and just needed to keep grinding.”
Koepka racked up three birdies in his first five holes on Sunday to grab the championship by the throat, but gave back a shot with a bogey on the sixth.
“I got off to a great start and got some rhythm going and carried that over to the rest of the round,” Koepka said.
A birdie on the 10th preceded a bogey on the 11th, but he reinforced his chances to win with a scrambling, one-putt par on the 14th after hitting his drive into the deep fescue to the right of the fairway.
“It really, really was testing this week, to be honest with you,” Koepka said of the course.
After Koepka holed his par putt at 14, Johnson three-putted for bogey, which all but ended his chances to put any pressure on Koepka down the stretch.
Koepka was asked if winning the U.S. Open ever gets old.
“No, it doesn’t. Not at all,” he said. “It feels so good to have this thing (the trophy) back in my hands.”
Berger (73), Tyrrell Hatton of England (69), Xander Schauffele (68) and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson (71) ended up tied for sixth at 6-over 286. Justin Rose of England (73) and Players champion Webb Simpson (69) finished tied for 10th at 7 over.
The top 10 finishers (and ties) are exempt for the following year’s U.S. Open while the top four finishers (and ties) are invited to next year’s Masters Tournament.
Japan’ Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler turned in the best scores from the morning wave of competitors on Sunday, but neither score pushed them into the top 20 as the lead groups began teeing off after the noon hour.
Matsuyama fired a 4-under-par 66 — 13 strokes better than his 79 on Saturday — to finish the tournament at 10 over. Fowler, who ballooned to a round-worst 84 in the wind and brutal conditions on Saturday, beat Matsuyama’s effort by a stroke, carding a 65 on Sunday — lowest in the tournament until Fleetwood eclipsed it — and finished at 11-over 291.
Phil Mickelson, who was embroiled in controversy on Saturday when he chased down and hit his ball on the 13th hole as it was rolling past the hole and down a hill before it stopped, shot 1 under in the final round to finish at 16 over for the championship.
–Field Level Media