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June 19, 2017

Koepka Wins the U.S. Open!

Brooks Koepka is the new U.S. Open champion with a well-earned victory. The challengers fell back early and only Brian Harman stayed close until his lack of length finally undid his quest for a major championship. Koepka is a worthy champion, but his victory lacked drama and challenges from the elite players in the game. The final leaderboard was a grouping of second tier players fighting to win the golden ring. You knew it was the U.S. Open, but the leaderboard suggested the St. Jude Open.

The USGA did everything right, but somehow it missed the mark. Erin Hills is a picturesque parkland golf course with no trees and undulating terrain that presented a variety shots. Being closed for seven months prior to the tournament the course was in excellent condition. There was difficulty on every hole, but most of the trouble would be for the high handicap player and not for the best players in the world. For a U.S. Open test, it was an easy golf course. The course was a challenge, but not a course to be feared. Records were established for most players under par, lowest single round under par, and tying the lowest under par total for 72 holes. At one point Paul Azinger remarked that he thought he was witnessing the Bob Hope Desert Classic and not the U.S. Open. The tournament favored the bomber, who could hit it a mile. In hindsight, the USGA made a mistake in giving the players too much landing area for their tee shots. Miss the generous fairways and there were big problems, but at this level of competency even poor drivers could find the fairway. The winner missed less than two fairways a round while averaging over 322 yards a drive and hitting 16 ½ greens in regulation! For the toughest test in golf, Erin Hills did not measure up.

The crowds were large, but you never got the major championship feeling that they were close to the action or involved with the drama. Many camera shots showed a few people behind a tee or wandering along by a fairway. There were not the huge roars that echoed throughout the course like you would at a Masters or a more traditional U.S. Open venue. The British Open is played on similar links like sites, but the excitement is overflowing and the television and commentators capture that suspense and enthusiasm. The broadcasters lamented the lack of wind and the soft playing conditions, but the last day the wind blew and the winner still made shooting 67 look easy. Maybe the course lacked difficultly and the players weren't charismatic, but this tournament will not be memorable mainly because of the course. The USGA went conservative and errored on caution. Still it provided a challenging test that perplexed many of the best players in the world.

The tournament started with the best players, except for Phil Mickelson, in the field, but unbelievably the three best ranked players missed the cut and only four of the top ten made the cut. Only Rickie Fowler was a mainstay on the leaderboard each day and had a realistic chance to win the tournament. Hideki Matsuyama finished strong, but when he made his charge winning was out of his grasp. I have a lot of respect for Brian Harman, Tommy Fleetwood, Xander Schauffle, and Bill Haas. They hit quality golf shots in U.S. Open pressure. All the top finishers were trying to win their first major and were putting it on the line. The biggest disappointment was the play of Rickie Fowler. He has the game, the charisma, and the credentials to shakeup the top of the leaderboard. What I saw was no guts that translated to no glory. I thought Sunday would be when he went all out and firmly grab his first major. He had the length to attack each hole, but many times he laid back giving up sometimes 40 yards. Brooks Koepka attacked the course. Rickie played defensively. Brooks won the tournament with aggressive play, but Rickie never made anyone scared of his presence. Elite players see an opportunity and run through the door. Rickie can do it, but he has to not be afraid of failing. Give it all you have and you will never be disgraced. This was a golden opportunity that he let slip. Some players know how to win and others know how to find a way to lose. Sergio is a prime example of that. Maybe the stars will align and good guy Rickie Fowler will have a major.

Brooks Koepka was a star at last year's Ryder Cup. He states that the intense pressure that he experienced those days at Hazeltine hardened him for the pressures of the U.S. Open. Erin Hills was a perfect fit for his golf game and he came prepared and played flawlessly. Many times the U.S. Open produces a fluke winner, but not this week. Congratulations to a worthy winner that has a bright future and more major championships in his future.

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