Monday, June 25, 2018
Is Koepka on Course to Lift the Claret Jug?
Brooks Koepka is on top of the world after becoming the first repeat U.S. Open champion since Curtis Strange in 1989. He claimed his first ever major at Erin Hills last year and he successfully defended the title with a nerveless display at Shinnecock Hills this month. He is the only man to win multiple majors in the past three years, and he should be surging with confidence ahead of the The Open Championship in July.
Koepka has the world's best record on links golf courses since the start of 2014, so it should not have surprised anyone to see him thrive at Shinnecock Hills. The notoriously tough New York State venue feels like a Scottish links course, due to the fescue rough, the tricky ocean breezes, the lack of trees, and the short grass around the greens. It embarrassed several of the world's finest golfers: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Jason Day, Sergio Garcia, Jon Rahm, and Bubba Watson all missed the cut.
But Koepka thrives in challenging conditions and he was a model of calm while those around him lost their heads. Amid wailing winds, dried out greens, and treacherous rough, many players howled in frustration and Phil Mickelson was forced into apologizing for his immaturity. But Koepka just rolled with the punches, displaying impressive mental fortitude to achieve consistency in the face of adversity. He was rewarded with another famous victory, finishing a shot clear of a resurgent Tommy Fleetwood and two ahead of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
"He's just a real strong mental guy," said Rickie Elliot, Koepka's long-time caddie. "He's unflappable. When he hits a bad shot, he never gives me any grief. He gets on with it. I mean, to this day, if we hit one over the back of the green, he'd probably just turn around to me and go, 'well, I hit that quite a bit hard.' Which is unusual for a good athlete or player. He takes a huge responsibility in what he's doing out there."
Koepka should now approach the remainder of the season with confidence to match his unflappability. Attention now shifts across the Atlantic to Scotland for the third major of the year, The Open at Carnoustie. It is set up perfectly for the 28-year-old American to add to his haul of majors. Carnoustie is another of the world's most challenging links courses, due to its thick rough and devilish bunkers. Like Shinnecock Hills, it looks set to frustrate many great golfers, but links specialist Koepka will relish the challenge. He earned his stripes by playing in Europe before he became a star on the PGA Tour, so he should be comfortable in the conditions and he could enjoy tremendous success.
The bookmakers responded to Koepka's U.S. Open victory by slashing the odds on him clinching the claret jug at Carnoustie. He now finds himself rubbing shoulders with Johnson, Spieth, McIlroy, Fleetwood, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, and Rickie Fowler in the top eight players heading the betting on this tournament in the fixed odds lines and the sports spread betting markets. That is exalted company indeed, and it illustrates how fiercely competitive The Open will be. Throw in Woods, Day, Henrik Stenson, Rahm, Garcia, Hideki Matsuyama, and several more elite players, and you get an idea of just how wide open the field is.
Among that group, Fleetwood stands out. The Englishman is the course record-holder at Carnoustie, he is a links golf specialist and he dazzled at Shinnecock Hills. His 63 on the final day of the U.S. Open equalled the record for the best score ever posted in the tournament's history, an amazing achievement in such treacherous conditions. That should give him plenty of confidence heading into The Open, as should the fact that he has just broken into the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time. He is now approaching the prime of his career, and he will represent a formidable opponent to Koepka.
The unpredictability is what makes golf so thrilling right now, and any of the world's elite players could usurp Koepka at Carnoustie. But he is constantly improving and his mental strength could well give him the edge over his rivals when they all converge on Scotland's east coast on July 19.