RICHMOND, NY — Three months ago, Brooks Koepka appeared on the Netflix show “Full Swing” as a man mentally broken and physically limited to the point where it seemed he could never again compete for a major championship. Three months later, Koepka about to play his second consecutive final in the majors. At the 2023 PGA Championship on Saturday, he became only the third player in the last 37 years to maintain an absolute advantage of 54 holes in the first two majors of the year.
It will take more than he provided over the final 18 holes at the Masters in April, where he shot 75 in the final round after leading by two over those last 18 holes, to emerge this Sunday with the Wanamaker Trophy. Koepka (-6) has a one-stroke lead over Viktor Hovland and Corey Conners with a significant ranking behind them.
Earlier this week, Koepka revealed that he stayed up all night after the Masters thinking about how he played on Sunday and what he learned from the experience.
“I just never think the way I thought before the final round,” said Koepka, who did not elaborate. “That was a big thing for me, but other than that, I think even learning what I learned at Augusta [National] kind of helped today. Like I said, I won’t do it again for the rest of my career.”
This time, Koepka’s final matchup partner is playing in his own second final matchup in the last three majors. Hovland shot a 74 in the final round of The Open Championship at St. Andrews last summer, where he was torched by Cameron Smith, Cameron Young and Rory McIlroy. It still resulted in his first top-10 finish at a major, and at the Masters last month, he earned his second.
Although there are other golfers who can catch Koepka at Oak Hill Country Club, Hovland is the most likely. He leads the field on approach and from tee to green as he drives towards his first big win in quite some time. The question before him is a daunting one: Can he stare at one of the greatest Grand Slam winners of the past 50 years and prevent him from joining a list of five-time Slam champions that includes Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson? ?
There is a precedent that says that this is not out of the question.
Since winning his fourth major (2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black), Koepka has failed late at the 2019 US Open, the 2020 PGA Championship, the 2021 PGA Championship and, most recently, the 2023 Masters. It’s not that Koepka can’t close anymore, I doubt anyone really believes that, it’s just that he does not have recently.
As for what Hovland has learned from his recent near misses at Majors? He preached patience and a focus on using his elite approach game to his advantage by playing in the middle of the greens and not ripping every flag.
“Any chance you get to play in the final group on a Sunday at a major, that’s pretty special,” Hovland said. “But the mindset is going to be, I play my own game, and obviously I want to win, but I’m going to play what I think is the right play on every shot. And if they beat me, I’ll get beat, but the plan is not to give it away. So Hopefully just executing the strategy I’ll have a chance… when I’m done with 18”.
Winning major championships is incredibly difficult. Do it by killing one of the all-time great champions when he has the upper hand and the cards before the finals? That degree of difficulty is as high as it gets.
However, Hovland doesn’t seem to be fazed. He’s not caught up in the story of the moment, he almost certainly doesn’t know about Koepka’s opportunity to mess things up with Ballesteros and Nelson, and he won’t fret if Brooks starts stomping Oak Hill early looking to claw his way to a fifth.
No, Hovland, the only player with a realistic chance of winning (barring a completely neutral or even unsatisfying round by Koepka that could put others in contention), will throw that Norwegian metal on headphones and slam his way around Oak. Hill. like he has done all week.
Few golfers are better at staying in their lanes. Few golfers are better with an iron in hand right now. And few golfers would find a date with Koepka on the first tee of the latest matchup more comfortable than Hovland. He is ready to win the first one from him. He now he just has to go do it.
Here are three other golfers who could catch up with Koepka on Sunday.
Bryson DeChambeau (-3, three hits back): The 2020 US Open champion is live as the winner. He couldn’t be more impressed with the attention than DeChambeau, who has apparently been distracted by it all. but golf in recent months, has been putting this week. He still does dumb things on the field (he walked to No. 18 punching the air after Koepka landed a 40-foot slam to his face on Saturday) and gives ridiculous quotes (he talked about the different shapes his body takes after Round 3), but is leading the field in shots gained off the tee, ranking second in drive distance and fourth in accuracy. The good news for DeChambeau, who no doubt knows what it’s like to pull off a major on a Sunday, is that he’s ready for the moment.
“Nothing has changed,” he said Saturday. “The same person. Have a little more patience, I’ll say it.”
If you’re not rooting for a Brooks-Bryson playoff like we got with Justin Thomas and Will Zalatoris a year ago, I’m not sure what to tell you.
Scottie Scheffler (-2, four strokes back): The world No. 2 player, who has stolen a page from Koepka’s playbook over the past two years en route to winning at the Masters and Players Championship, struggled badly with the putter on Saturday when he shot 73 to fall four behind The Lead. Those whoops bounce back into the final round for me. Scheffler is still hitting it beautifully (he’s third on the course from tee to green), and if the putter jumps, he’ll either win or come close. Of all the players in the top 10 right now, Scheffler may be the hardest to take out. Unfortunately for him, he might also be a bit too far behind.
“I didn’t shoot on a day where the conditions were tough and I didn’t have my best material,” Scheffler said. “I held up pretty well and didn’t post the number I wanted, but I only have four for tomorrow, and if I go out there and have a big round, I think I’ll have a decent chance.” .”
Rory McIlroy (-1, five shots back): Although Conners and Justin Rose are also in the mix here, McIlroy gets the nod ahead of both because his playing ceiling is so much higher. I’m not convinced McIlroy has that level of play in his bag this week – it takes a Herculean effort to win majors, especially when coming from five behind, and McIlroy is 26 off the tee (terrible for him). However, I’m pretty convinced that if he starts running downhill on Sunday night, he could shoot an absolute 31 over the back nine and steal a fifth major of his own (his first since 2014).
Rick Gehman joins Kyle Porter and Patrick McDonald to break down a wet and eventful day at the 2023 PGA Championship. Brooks Koepka makes a move and Viktor Hovland remains near the top of the board. Follow and listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.