By Doug Ferguson
Confidence was never an issue for Brooks Koepka until the injuries piled up, the doubts crept in and he began to wonder if he still belonged among golf's elite.
Koepka answered every question at the PGA Championship with a performance that ranks among his best. His fifth major title was the sweetest of them all. No doubt about that, either.
“It feels damned good. Yeah, this one is definitely special,” Koepka said. “I think this one is probably the most meaningful of them all with everything that's gone on, all the crazy stuff over the last few years.”
One knee injury kept him from the Masters, another from the Presidents Cup in Australia. Two years ago, he tried to pop his knee back into place and shattered his knee cap. And then last summer, uncertain about his future, he decided to leave the PGA Tour for the guaranteed Saudi riches of LIV Golf, bringing a mixture of criticism and skepticism.
And there he was Sunday at Oak Hill in Pittsford, N.Y., looking good as new, dominant as ever, against the best collection of golfers in the world on a punishing golf course.
Koepka ran off three quick birdies early, never lost the lead amid a gritty fight from Viktor Hovland, and closed with a 3-under 67 for a two-shot victory.
He held up his index finger as he posed next to the Wanamaker Trophy, but he may as well have held up all five.
With three PGAs and two U.S. Opens, he became the 20th player with five or more majors. He won his third Wanamaker Trophy — only Jack Nicklaus and Walter Hagen with five and Tiger Woods with four have won the PGA Championship more times — and captured his first major in what felt like four years.
And to think that over the last few years, Koepka was so wounded he felt he couldn't compete, a decision that might have led to him leaving the PGA Tour for Saudi-funded LIV Golf in a shocking move last June after the U.S. Open.
In the Netflix series “Full Swing” that began aired earlier this year, he was quoted as saying his confidence had given way to doubt. “I'm going to be honest with you, I can't compete with these guys week in and week out.”
Give him good health and a clear head, and good luck taking down Koepka in the majors. He now has won five of his last 22 majors, a rate exceeded only by Woods, Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Nick Faldo and Ben Hogan in the last 75 years.
He is the first player from LIV Golf to win a major, and it hits back at the notion that 54-hole events and guaranteed money would take the edge off the rival league's best players.
“I definitely think it helps LIV, but I’m more interested in my own self right now, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “Yeah, it’s a huge thing for LIV, but at the same time I’m out here competing as an individual at the PGA Championship. I’m just happy to take this home for the third time.”
Koepka is in pretty heady company just about everywhere he looks. His five majors are as many as Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson. Among active players, only Woods (15) and Phil Mickelson (6) have more.
“I'm not even sure I dream of it as a kid, that I'd win that many,” he said.
Koepka left little doubt about his place in the game with his two-shot win over hard-luck Hovland (68) and Scottie Scheffler, who closed with a 65 and returned to No. 1 in the world.
“To look back to where we were two years ago, I'm so happy right now,” Koepka said. “This is just the coolest thing.”
The victory moves Koepka to No. 13 in the world and No. 2 in the Ryder Cup standings. The top six automatically qualify, and it would be hard to fathom leaving Koepka off the American team. He can only early points in the majors, and two more are still to come.
Koepka had to share the loudest cheers with California club pro Michael Block, who put on an amazing show over four days. Block made a hole-in-one on the 15th hole while playing with Rory McIlroy, and then made two tough par putts at the end for a fourth straight 70.
He tied for 15th, giving him a return date to the PGA Championship next year at Valhalla. It was the best finish by a club pro since Lonnie Nielsen tied for 11 in 1986 at Inverness.
“The most surreal moment I've ever had in my life,” Block said. “I'm living a dream and making sure I'm enjoying the moment. Not getting any better than this — no way in hell.”
Block charges $125 a lesson at Arroyo Trabuco in Mission Viejo, California. He earned just short of $290,000 at Oak Hill.
A month ago at the Masters, Koepka lost a two-shot lead in the final round by playing tentatively and was overrun by Jon Rahm. He vowed he would not do that again, and Koepka delivered in a major way, just like he used to.
Hovland made it easy for him at the end. Koepka was one shot ahead on the 16th hole when Hovland hit his 9-iron from a bunker that plugged into the lip in front of him — the same shot that stopped Corey Conners on Saturday — and made double bogey.
Koepka gouged out a shot from the rough to 5 feet for birdie and suddenly was leading by four shots when Hovland made double bogey.
Scheffler started four shots behind and never got closer than two. His 65 matched the best score of the tournament, posted by four other players on a day that was set up for scoring.
“I gave the guys on top of the leaderboard something to think about, and I kind of made a little bit much a move, but Brooks just played some fantastic golf this week,” Scheffler said. “He played too good this weekend for me to catch up to him.”
Koepka was determined to restore his reputation as a major force, and he wasted no time. He stuffed a wedge to 4 feet on the second and third holes, and rolled in an 8-foot birdie down the hill on the par-5 fourth.
But he drove into the water on the sixth hole and did well to make bogey, and another bogey from the rough on the seventh trimmed his lead to Hovland to one shot.
It was tight the rest of the way until the 16th. Hovland hit 9-iron from the bunker and could hear the awful thud of it rocketing into the turf at the edge of the sand. He knew immediately what happened, covered his mouth with a closed fist. After a drop into nasty rough, it took two more to get to the green and led to double bogey.
“Brooks is a great player, and now he has five majors. I mean, that’s a hell of a record right there. It’s not easy going toe-to-toe with a guy like that,” Hovland said. “He is not going to give you anything, and I didn’t really feel like I gave him anything either until 16.”
Bryson DeChambeau, who began the PGA with a 66, made too many mistakes in his round of 70. He stuck around to clasp hands with Koepka, two players from LIV Golf who used to get under each other's skin.
LIV had three players in the top 10 for the second straight major.
Koepka, who finished at 9-under 271, received $3.15 million and the heaviest trophy among the four majors. Nothing felt more valuable than that.