Brooks Koepka’s bid to become the first player in nearly a century to win the PGA Championship in three consecutive years looked to be dead and buried after three straight back-nine bogeys, but with birdies on two of the last three holes, Koepka’s quest to make history is alive and well. He signed for a 1-under 69 and trails his former workout partner Dustin Johnson by two strokes.
Koepka, 30, is never lacking in confidence and he trolled Johnson and his fellow competitors, many of whom lack major-championship pedigree, as only he can. First, he told CBS’s Amanda Balionis, “A lot of the guys on the leaderboard, I don’t think have won, I guess DJ has only won one. I don’t know a lot of the other guys up there.”
And he doubled down when a similar theme emerged in his post-round press conference, throwing more shade on Johnson, who posted a 54-hole aggregate of 9-under 201.
“There’s a few guys around you with one major; you’ve obviously got more,” a reporter asked. “Was the second one harder to win?”
“Well, if you look at the top of the leaderboard, I’d say yes,” Koepka said with a smirk.
When pushed to elaborate, Koepka, the winner of four of the last 10 majors, claimed overcoming expectations would be the biggest mental hurdle for those trying to secure their second major.
“I guess it does become difficult if you think you’ve played good enough to win multiple ones. But you’ve just got to keep putting yourself there. I’m doing a good job of that,” he said. “But the second one definitely is a little bit tougher, I think, as you can see from the top of the leaderboard.”
Indeed, Koepka does have a point. While he’s amassed two U.S. Open titles to go along with two Wanamaker trophies, the rest of the top 20 have a combined to win three major championships (Johnson, Jason Day and Justin Rose all have one major to their credit.)
“This is a guy that has no scar tissue,” Golf Channel’s Justin Leonard said. “Everybody in this field has scar tissue. The only scar tissue is what is in his knee and that is not bothering him.”
For Koepka, Saturday was an up-and-down round of four birdies and three bogeys, but it still added up to his 10th round in the 60s in his last 11 major rounds. He made birdies at Nos. 4 and 12 and shared the lead at 8 under, before making three bogeys in a row to slip off the first page of the leaderboard as his vaunted iron game let him down. At 15, he short-sided himself right of the green and fluffed his pitch and made bogey.
“Maybe took a little bit too aggressive of lines on those out of the semi (rough), but I just missed them in the worst spot possible, but they were good shots,” Koepka said. “Hit them too good.”
Just when he looked to be fading from the picture, Koepka responded with birdies at 16 and 18, and he’s lurking with a legitimate chance to win the same major three consecutive years for the first time since Australian Peter Thomson achieved the feat at the British Open (1954-56).
Last year, the roles were reversed as Koepka slept on the 54-hole lead at the PGA at Bethpage Black and Johnson roared back and nearly caught him on the back nine Sunday, finishing second. Johnson, who could easily have three more majors to go with his lone triumph at the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2016, can turn the tables on Koepka if he putts like he did during his third-round 65. But his track record at majors looms large: Johnson is 0-for-3 in previous 54-hole lead/co-leads in majors.
“I think it gets to him that Brooks Koepka has won four and he hasn’t,” Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee said. “Personally, I think he does remember; he may not show it, he may not reveal it.”
While Johnson has 21 career Tour victories, Koepka has just seven, but the major total tells a different story. Both may be headed for the World Golf Hall of Fame someday, but legacies are secured on major-championship Sundays. So, why does Koepka have more four majors to Johnson’s one? Chamblee chalked it up to a matter of self-belief.
“Brooks plays like he’s got the Jim Valvano speech going on in a loop in his head and Dustin sometimes looks like he has the AM radio going on in his head, and that’s the difference,” he said.
Koepka has won majors from ahead and he’s won them from behind. He chased Gary Woodland around Pebble Beach last June in his quest for a three-peat of the U.S. Open, and simply got beat by the better man on that day. But Koepka likes his chances heading into Sunday’s final round at TPC Harding Park.
“When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized,” he said. “I don’t know, he’s only won one. I’m playing good.”
Added Koepka: “Just do what I’ve been doing, I feel like I’m right there.”
He could be right on the threshold of making history.