There were high scores, treacherous winds, frustrated golfers, vocal fans and chased down putts, but nothing could stop Brooks Koepka from becoming only the third player in history to win back-to-back US Open titles on Sunday.
Incredibly, two months ago, his sole focus was rehabbing serious damage to a wrist ligament injury that kept him out of practice for nearly four months, enough time for any golfer to forget what an eight iron or a putting green looked like.
Those long months at his home gym in Jupiter in Florida surely made winning a second US Open crown since Curtis Strange in 1989 seem like a scarcely believable dream.
And for much of the first two rounds at Shinnecock it appeared much the same as he struggled under the stiff winds and rocky greens on Long Island.
Six shots back at the start of round two, it looked like an uphill task for the 28-year-old to navigate, especially with the sparkling form of Dustin Johnson who was storming through the field like a Gulliver amongst a crowd of Lilliputians.
But, like any great champion, every bit of progress comes in gradual steps and Koepka posted a four under-66 to climb back into contention.
His versatility was demonstrated superbly on the gruelling Shinnecock course where under-par scores come rare. Last year at Erin Hills, he posted a 16-under 272, whereas this year he had to settle for a one-over par 281 (75-66-72-68).
His birdies on two, three, five, 10 and 16 pushed him into the lead on Sunday, holding off an impressive final round from Tommy Fleetwood who shot a scintillating 63 to finish second.
The low scores will undoubtedly milk the attention on Koepka’s scorecard, but it was the saved par from challenging positions on the 12th and 13th, and his stunning chip to a couple of feet on 16 that were highlights of a championship winning performance.
Some players can deal with the pressure, others crumble and only a select band can play to their potential on a consistent basis. Koepka is clearly a mix of all three and was rewarded for his intelligence and strategy on a course that saw marquee names like Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods all fail to make it past Friday.
Discussions surrounding Shinnecock and the USGA’s handling of it may overshadow the tournament as a whole, but the achievements of a player like Koepka cannot be underestimated.
For the world No4 to show such consistency and confidence in just his sixth tournament this year after injury is incredible, and not only is he the first player to successfully defend the major in nearly 30 years, but the fourth golfer to win two US Open titles before turning 30, joining an elite club of Woods, Ernie Els and Jack Nicklaus.
Players like Johnson and Spieth may be household names in the US, but Koepka certainly has a bright future in the game ahead of him. And with it being a Ryder Cup year, he has the chance to be one of Jim Furyk’s key lieutenants at Le Golf National later this year as the Americans bid to defend their title on European soil.
Fleetwood carded a stunning final round of 63 at Shinnecock Hills, agonisingly missing from eight feet for birdie on the 18th to equal the all-time major record of 62 set by Branden Grace in last year’s Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
The 27-year-old’s score still matched the lowest in US Open history and set a testing clubhouse target on two over par, with Koepka the only player able to beat it – by a single shot – thanks to a nerveless 68.
TWEET OF THE DAY
Koepka’s brother and fellow professional Chase may have been celebrating a bit loudly.
SHOT OF THE DAY
Protecting a one-shot lead with three holes to play, Koepka struck the vital blow with a superb approach to the par-five 16th to set up a tap-in birdie.
ROUND OF THE DAY
Koepka’s 68 was brilliant under the pressure of holding the lead, but Fleetwood came within a whisker of equalling the lowest score in major championship history and still matched the best ever in the US Open.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, this is incredible. I don’t think I could have dreamed of this, going back-to-back.” – The size of his achievement begins to dawn on Koepka.
STATISTIC OF THE DAY
The Golf Channel’s Justin Ray puts Fleetwood’s performance in perspective.
The 18th played as the toughest hole for the first time, perhaps unsurprisingly given it is a 486-yard uphill par four. Dustin Johnson carded one of the seven birdies to finish outright third, while Koepka took one of the 18 bogeys as the hole played to an average of 4.313.
For the third day in succession, the fifth hole played as the easiest with an average of 4.836, offering up one eagle and 26 birdies.
ON THE UP
Fleetwood’s prospects of a first major title after he followed last year’s fourth place with a runners-up finish, coincidentally behind the man he partnered in the final round at Erin Hills 12 months earlier.
ON THE SLIDE
European hopes of breaking the American stranglehold on golf’s biggest titles, with Koepka’s win meaning they still hold all four majors and all the transatlantic team competitions.
Tournament organisers admitted they went “too far” with the set up of Shinnecock Hills after a day of “carnage” in the 118th US Open.
Only three players broke par in the third round and scores of 66 early in the day were enough to lift Tony Finau and Daniel Berger from a tie for 45th to a share of the lead on three over par with defending champion Brooks Koepka and overnight leader Dustin Johnson.
England’s Justin Rose is a shot off the pace after a 73, with Henrik Stenson a shot further back and Masters champion Patrick Reed and Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk on seven over alongside Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat, whose 68 lifted him from joint last to a tie for seventh.
“We want the US Open to be tough, a complete test but there’s no doubt it was a tale of two golf courses,” USGA chief executive Mike Davis told host broadcaster Fox Sports.
“We will admit there were some aspects of the set up where we went too far, in that well-executed shots were not rewarded and in some cases penalised.”
Spain’s Rafa Cabrera Bello had been seven over until a triple-bogey on the 18th and wrote on Twitter:
Painful finish with a 7 at the last that ruins a pretty decent day. Regardless, it was not a fair test of golf. Greens were unplayable, with unnecessary pin positions. @USGA found a way to make us look like fools on the course.A pity they manage to destroy a beautiful golf course— Rafa Cabrera Bello (@RCabreraBello) June 16, 2018
The last time Shinnecock Hills hosted the event in 2004 play had to be suspended during the final round – in which 28 of the 66 players amazingly failed to break 80 – to water the seventh green, with only the winner Retief Goosen and runner-up Phil Mickelson finishing under par.
And similar conditions transpired 14 years later as some questionable pin positions on hard, fast greens resulted in the “carnage” which two-time major champion Zach Johnson predicted after completing a 72.
“It’s unfortunate that our nation’s tournament is already shot at a venue that they lost 14 years ago,” Johnson told Sky Sports.