ST. LOUIS — The PGA Championship is never mentioned first in any discussion about which is the best of golf’s four major championships. On Sunday, at Bellerive Country Club, there was nothing but edge-of-your-seat, what-will happen-next drama from the moment the final groups stuck a tee in the ground at the first hole.
There was the U.S. Open champion, Brooks Koepka, trying to muscle his way to a third major championship. There was defending champion Justin Thomas making an early charge, announcing in his final round he wasn’t going to give away this title without a fight. There was Adam Scott, the Australian carrying the memory of friend Jarrod Lyle, who died this week after a long fight with cancer.
There was Rickie Fowler, perhaps the leader in the clubhouse when it comes to Best Player To Have Never Won a Major, trying to make a Sunday push despite an oblique injury that limited him all week.
And yes, there was Tiger Woods, this generation’s greatest champion, trying to end a decadelong major-title drought by making a final-round charge before a monstrous, loud, supportive crowd in St. Louis.
In the end, though, it was Koepka who held off the entire field and walked away with his second major title of the year. Here is why Koepka, and not someone else, is holding the trophy:
Why it was Brooks Koepka
Koepka has made note more than once this week that despite winning back-to-back U.S. Opens, he has flown under the radar. It’s clear it bothers him. On Sunday, it was clear the gallery at Bellerive Country Club wanted to see Tiger Woods turn back time. The roars were heard all over the golf course. Koepka wasn’t fazed, just like he wasn’t fazed by the firm and windy conditions that annoyed so many in the field at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. The other reason: He answered every challenge. With Woods charging and with playing partner Adam Scott making a move, he didn’t budge. Sure, Koepka made bogeys at Nos. 4 and 5 to give the field hope, but he rattled off three consecutive birdies to close his front nine and two more at Nos. 15 and 16 to close the deal.
Why it wasn’t Tiger Woods
That Woods is not holding up a major championship trophy for the 15th time in his life can be traced back to one club: his putter. It failed him all day Saturday, when he could not convert birdie putts to close his second round and throughout his third round during a 29-hole day in the St. Louis heat. On Sunday, even though his putter was more cooperative, two missed putts that stayed out by fractions of inches were why he walked away having just missed — again. On No. 11, Woods had 27 feet for birdie. The putt was right in the middle of the hole the entire way. All it needed was one more revolution. In 2005, at the Masters, he got that final turn on the 16th green at Augusta National. A commercial was born. This time, on Sunday at the PGA, the ball stopped. On No. 14, just one shot out of the lead, he had 14 feet for par. The ball looked good as it approached the hole, but it hit the right edge, went partially down the hole before violently lipping out.
Why it wasn’t Adam Scott
Scott didn’t do much for six holes. A bogey at the first, then five straight pars made him, it seemed, an afterthought amid all the drama around him. Then, without warning, he caught fire. He birdied No. 7. Then he made another at No. 8. After a par at No. 9, he rattled off three more birdies over his next four holes. The big swing, the one that likely cost him a chance at a second major title, came at No. 15. Both he and Koepka were looking at makeable birdie putts. Scott missed his from 18 feet; Koepka made his from 10 feet. That was it.
Why it wasn’t Rickie Fowler
He was in contention, on the verge of a major title. Sound familiar? It should. This has happened before. While the others chasing Koepka had a moment when things fell apart, Fowler never did. The problem is he never had any moments when there was hope this was his time for major. While others were making birdies all over Bellerive, Fowler did, well, nothing. He parred his first four holes, before bogeying the fifth. He didn’t register his first birdie until the 13th hole. By then, it was too late. The leaders had moved too far ahead. Fowler’s search for that elusive first major title goes on.
Why it wasn’t Justin Thomas
Thomas started hot, with three birdies in seven holes. He had another good look at No. 8, a birdie that would have put even more pressure on Koepka. Not only did Thomas miss that one, but he missed the short par putt coming back. Thomas, known to get angry then move on, recovered quickly with birdies at Nos. 10 and 11. But then trouble came up from out of nowhere on No. 14. In the middle of the fairway, with just 124 yards to the hole on the par 4, Thomas hit in the greenside bunker and failed to get up and down. Two perfect opportunities for birdies that instead became bogeys are the main reasons he didn’t hold up the Wanamaker Trophy for a second consecutive year.
Why it wasn’t Thomas Pieters
Pieters seemed poised to put up a low number the leaders coming down the stretch would have to stare at over the finishing holes. He birdied three in a row, at Nos. 14, 15 and 16, to go to 6 under on his round and 12 under for the tournament. That would be a scary number as the pressure mounted and the greens became even bumpier for the final groups. Then the 17th hole happened. He hammered his tee shot into the water up the right side. He dropped one and then promptly hit another in the water. By the time he was done, he posted a double-bogey 7. And just like that, his hopes for a PGA win and his first major championship disappeared