It has taken 29 years, but the US Open has its first back-to-back champion since Curtis Strange successfully defended the title in 1989.
Back then, Strange entered his winning press conference with the immortal line, “move over Ben,” a reference to Ben Hogan, the only other man to win two-in-a-row since World War II.
Now, of course, it is “move over Curtis” after Brooks Koepka’s closing round of 68 over an unusually heavily-watered Shinnecock Hills was just enough to edge out a fast-finishing Tommy Fleetwood. The hirsute Englishman with the close resemblance to the cross-country running Forrest Gump shot a seven-under par 63 to tie the US Open record, reach two-over par for the week and eventually come up one-shot shy of Koepka. The victory was worth $2,160,000 to the now two-time champion.
Not surprisingly, however, that breathtaking financial reward was not the most exciting aspect of the win for the “still-champion.”
“This is incredible,” was Koepka’s initial reaction to a long day during which he time-after-time holed crucial putts in the 10-15 foot range. “To have my name on this trophy twice is incredible. To go back-to-back is extraordinary. It feels so special. I’m truly honoured.
“And yes, the key today was making all those clutch putts that you need to keep momentum going. I didn’t drive great. But you can make up for that with a hot putter. And that’s what I had today.”
Perhaps the most crucial of those putts came on the 11th green. For bogey. Having missed the green badly to the left – “you cannot go there” – Koepka chipped all the way over the putting surface into a bunker. The escape wasn’t great either. But he made the resulting 15-footer for what was, in the end, a “good” four.
“After that big a mistake, I just wanted to get away with a bogey,” said the champion with just a hint of understatement. “I felt like I could have been very easily derailed if I had made double or triple. I actually watched guys hit that putt on television in the morning. I watched three of them leave it short. So I told myself to give it a little extra.”
Just as well he did. Armed with that boost in confidence, Koepka continued to putt well over the challenging back-nine, eventually arriving on the 18th tee needing only a bogey to win. And a bogey is what he got, courtesy of a wild approach that struck the grandstand to the left of the putting surface. Still, three more from there was good enough at the end of what was, in so many ways, a controversial week.
Which is not to say that Koepka ever got involved in all the chatter about the set-up of the golf course.
“In hindsight, yesterday probably should have been like it was today,” he said. “But it is what it is. You have to keep plugging away and not get caught up in all the talk. I just focused on what I was doing.”
As for Fleetwood, last year’s European No.1 was equally philosophical, even after coming so close to what would have been his maiden major victory.
“I’ve done a lot this week,” he said, at least equalling Koepka in the understatement stakes. “With five holes to play yesterday I was eight-over par for the round and playing really badly. Then I made some great putts and some great up-and-downs. I shot the round of the day on Friday. And on Thursday I really stuck in all the way round. I was six-over through 15 and played the last three in one-under. I did so many good things it is difficult to look back with may regret over one shot.”
The shot in question was the seven-foot putt he missed on the 18th green.
“I had a chance to make history but I wouldn’t do anything differently,” he continued. “Yes, I’d love to hit the putts on 16 and 18 again. But I hit the putts I wanted and I’m not going to say I should have done this or that. Shooting 62 was actually more in my mind than where we were in the tournament coming down the last few holes. So it feels strange to be a little disappointed to have shot 63. But it’s been a great day and to equal the record is very special.”
Not quite as happy were the likes of 2016 champion Dustin Johnson, whose closing 70 was good enough only for third place, one-shot ahead of Masters champion Patrick Reed.
The two Aussies playing the final day, Aaron Baddeley and Marc Leishman shot 69 and 74 respectively. Baddeley finished T-25. Leishman was T-45.