What a waste of time. Seven shots clear of anyone else in the field at the halfway point in the 101st USPGA Championship, Brooks Koepka will carry the same advantage into the final round.
A third round of 70, level par, over the 7403-yard Bethpage Black layout on Long Island has the defending champion holding steady at 12-under the card for the 54-holes played. Dustin Johnson, former Australian PGA champion Harold Varner, Luke List and the exotically named Jazz Janewattananond are the nearest “challengers” on five-under at the end of a bright but blustery day. The 67s by Varner and Janewattananond were the low rounds.
The identities of the closest/distant pursuers is largely irrelevant, of course. This championship is all but over bar formalities that now include all of the fourth day. Koepka is going to win, the only mystery his ultimate margin of victory in what will be his fourth major championships triumph in just under two years. He’s too strong. He’s too consistent. He’s putting too well. All of which has failed to escape the notice of what passes for his competition this week. This isn’t quite Tiger Woods at his peak, but it is a glimpse of what might just become the norm for the next few years.
“No disrespect to Brooks, although he deserves a lot of credit for what he is doing, comparing anything to Tiger is unfair, in a good or bad way,” said Adam Scott, whose 72 took him back to three-under and a tie for eighth place. “Tiger did this multiple times in majors, never mind regular events. But fair play to Brooks. He has separated himself and it is impossible to imagine him playing badly enough to cough it up tomorrow. He’s pushing the boundaries at the moment and no one can keep up.
“But we all have to tee-off with some hope. I shot six-under yesterday. Maybe the pins will be friendlier and someone will do that. But realistically, my focus will not be on winning. Today I was in the second-to-last group and had the feeling that any birdie I made didn’t really matter. It was tough to be motivated. So I’ll just be trying to shoot a great score and take something out of the week.”
Koepka himself was happy enough at the end of a round in which he recorded over-par scores at consecutive holes for the first time since the third round of the Players Championship in March. Steadiness is all he requires to see this thing out. And that he achieved, even without the outstanding putting that had so marked his first two rounds.
“I actually struck it better than I did yesterday,” he said. “I just didn't putt as well. I left a couple putts short right in the middle. If I make those and shoot a couple under, I extend the lead. But I felt like they were coming off the putter very nicely. Which is key. I’m trying not to leave myself too many three and four-footers. It's difficult to make a lot of birdies. So if you can par your way around, that is pretty good.
“I'm just trying to play good golf. If I can get off to a good start tomorrow and be one or two-under after six, I’ll be in a good spot. That's all I need to do tomorrow. And from there – from seven to 12 – it’s all about hanging on and making as many pars as you can. So it will be nothing different. I'm just going to go try to play a good, solid round of golf. I'm definitely not going to let up. I’ll be trying to hit the best possible shot I can at the time. I feel like when I'm over a shot, I'm very confident.”
All of which sounds like a pretty sound formula for success, one that would give the chasing pack no hope of making up any kind of significant ground.
“I think we all can agree that Brooks is the best player here this week,” said Englishman Matt Wallace, succinctly summing up the proceedings so far. “He's a good golfer, isn't he?”
As for the rest of the remaining Australian contingent, Cam Smith – who played alongside Australian Open champion Abraham Ancer – was surely the most disappointed. Three-under par for the day standing on the 8th tee, the two-time Australian PGA champion dropped seven shots thereafter to shoot 74. That was one-shot more than Lucas Herbert, who is now seven-over par for the championship.
Jason Day did better, shooting a 69 that hoisted him to the giddy heights of T-26 and two-over par. As he put it, “a long way back.” Like everyone else, the 2015 USPGA champion was struggling to come up with reasons for playing one more round in an event where the result is almost a foregone conclusion.
“It’s all about trying to build some confidence for what is to come,” he shrugged. “I want to be playing well going into the Memorial and the US Open. There’s a lot to play for after this week. So, although I’m not going to win here, I can still try to get things going and hit some good shots.”
Day also showed himself to be a good judge of both Koepka’s character and the level of scoring in the afternoon.
“The course today was still receptive, but I guess it will dry out a bit later,” he continued. “The greens are rolling really nicely. Brooks might play safe but I don’t think he will. That’s not his game. He’ll try to stay aggressive. But this is Saturday at a major championship so the scores are likely to come back (rise) a little.”
The last word though, goes to Koepka, in the form of “advice” to his fellow competitors left wondering how he manages to excel to quite this extent at the four most important events in golf.
“Guys make the mistake of trying to figure out, when they get to a major, what's going on, what's different,” he said. “It's not. It's just focus. It's grind it out, suck it up, and move on. You're going to make a lot of mistakes; it's a major championship. You know that's going to happen, and guys have a hard time letting that go.”