Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 19, 2019

A Worthy Champion, A Spirited Challenge, And A Winning Course

With its third turn at hosting a major championship, Bethpage Black finally caught a break. The USGA won well-deserved praise when it named the sprawling Long Island layout as host of the 2002 US Open, finally staging our national championship at a public course. The announcement would not have been news in Great Britain, where over the decades many of the links in the Open rota have been public courses. Most notably, the Old Course at St. Andrews, home of golf, is open to one and all (as are the six adjoining courses operated by the local Links Trust), though it’s best to plan one’s tee time months in advance.

But for the majors played in this country the story had always been very different. Augusta National, the Masters venue, is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, and both the US Open and PGA Championship had for years generally been rotated among only slightly less privileged private country clubs. Even when one of those events was staged on a publicly accessible course, it was a high-end resort like Pinehurst or Pebble Beach – accessible to anyone willing to shell out $500 or more for a round of golf. Bethpage is an entirely different animal, one that weekend hackers everywhere know very well. The Black is one of five courses in a state park in Farmingdale, twenty-five miles east of Gotham. Golfers change their shoes in the parking lot and there is no men’s grill. New York state residents can play the courses for $38 to $65 dollars during the week, with just a modest $5 to $10 weekend surcharge.

While the 2002 US Open and a return engagement seven years later were successful events, played before massive crowds of boisterous fans that fully justified the USGA’s egalitarian site selection, both events were plagued by rain. Delays at the 2009 tournament were so bad that the final round wasn’t played until Monday, and many spectator areas were closed because of mud and slippery conditions. It was thus very welcome news when the early weather forecast for this weekend’s PGA Championship proved overly pessimistic. While rain did fall during the practice rounds, the competition was mostly played in mild spring weather, with an increasing wind for Sunday’s final round that allowed Bethpage Black to show just why those signs warning that it’s “an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers” are posted near the first tee.

For the first three days of this year’s PGA the most highly skilled golfer in the field was unquestionably Brooks Koepka, the impossibly long-hitting player who avoids the spotlight and thrives at majors. Koepka opened by setting a new course record with a 7-under par 63, matching his score from the second round at last year’s PGA at Bellerive. There Koepka held off Tiger Woods on Sunday to win his third major. With the PGA Tour’s shift in schedule that moved the PGA Championship from August to May, Koepka came to Bethpage not just as the defending champion but as the winner of two of the last four major tournaments and two-time defending champion of the US Open.

He was very nearly as good on Friday, when he backed up his opening record-setter with a 5-under par 65, putting him 12-under at the midpoint of the tournament, seven shots clear of his nearest challenger. His two-day total of 128 broke the record for the lowest 36-hole score at a major by two shots. It was also seventeen shots better than the score of Tiger Woods, one of his playing partners on Thursday and Friday. If Koepka’s third round tally of even par 70 seemed pedestrian, it was only in relation to his first two rounds, not the rest of the field. His lead remained seven shots heading into Sunday, a margin that no previous 54-hole leader had ever squandered.

Yet what many presumed would be a coronation proved to be anything but once the wind freshened Sunday afternoon, with gusts approaching thirty miles per hour. For much of the final day the best player on the course was Koepka’s close friend and workout partner, Dustin Johnson. While the leader opened with a loosely played bogey and didn’t get back to level for the round until a birdie at the 4th, Johnson rolled in three birdies on the front nine to cut the overnight lead down to four shots. As the final pairings began the long walk in from the furthest reaches of the Black, Koepka appeared to restore order by sending a soaring gap wedge from 160 yards to little more than a foot for a birdie at the difficult par-4 10th hole, even as Johnson was unable to get up and down from the sand to save par at the 11th. Just like that the lead was back up to six.

That was when the seemingly unperturbable Koepka got decidedly perturbed. He followed one poor shot with another on the 11th, finally escaping with a bogey when he holed a putt from eight feet. That dropped shot was followed by three more, one on each of the next three holes. As the leader marched down the hill from the 14th green to the 15th tee, up ahead Johnson was making birdie on the uphill par-4, one of the most difficult holes at Bethpage Black, for the fourth straight day. The lead was now but a single stroke.

Just when it looked like the Koepka bandwagon had veered into a ditch, he showed the mettle of a player who arrived on Long Island having won three of the previous eight majors, turning the 15th and 16th into the decisive holes of the tournament. While Koepka didn’t match Johnson’s birdie at the first of those two holes, he did stanch the bleeding by negotiating a tricky downhill sliding two-putt par. Then shortly after Johnson found the rough at the 16th and needed a 4-iron for his approach, Koepka split the fairway with his drive and was left with just an 8-iron to the putting surface. The result was a bogey for the pursuer and a par for the leader that allowed Koepka to breath again over the final holes.

Koepka’s final round of 4-over 74 was the highest by a PGA Championship winner in fifteen years. On a more positive note he becomes the first golfer ever to win both the US Open and PGA Championship titles in back-to-back years. He also joins an elite list of golfers with four majors before his 30th birthday, and Koepka has three more such events to add to his total before he reaches that milestone early next May. Should he do so he’ll join Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones on a list of major championship aristocracy. While his Sunday best came up short, Johnson also joins an admirable short list of pro golfers – those who have taken second place at each of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Yet as Koepka readily admitted after his victory, he was just “glad we didn’t have to play any more holes.” By the time the final putt was holed, the real winner of this year’s PGA Championship was that behemoth of a muni known as Bethpage Black, which surely brought a smile to the lips of weekend golfers everywhere. Time to freshen up the paint on those warning signs.

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