RICHMOND, N.Y. — Three months ago, Brooks Koepka appeared on the Netflix show “Full Swing” as a mentally broken and physically limited man to the point where it seemed as if he may never again for contend for a major championship. Three months later, Koepka about to play in his second consecutive final pairing at the majors. At the 2023 PGA Championship on Saturday, he became just the third player in the last 37 years to hold an outright 54-hole lead at the first two majors of the year.
It will take more than he provided over the last 18 holes at the Masters in April, where he shot 75 in the final round after leading by two going into those last 18 holes, to emerge this Sunday with the Wanamaker Trophy. Koepka (-6) holds a one-shot lead on Viktor Hovland and Corey Conners with a significant leaderboard behind them.
Earlier this week, Koepka revealed that he stayed up all night after that Masters thinking about how he played on Sunday and what he learned from the experience.
“To just never think the way I thought going into the final round,” said Koepka, who did not elaborate further. “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 the rest of my career.”
Koepka’s final pairing partner this time around just so happens to be playing in his own second final pairing across the last three majors. Hovland shot a 74 in the final round of the The Open Championship at St. Andrews last summer where he got torched by Cameron Smith, Cameron Young and Rory McIlroy. It still resulted in his first top 10 at a major, and at the Masters last month, he grabbed his second.
Though there are other golfers who can catch Koepka at Oak Hill Country Club, Hovland is the most likely. He leads the field in approach and from tee to green, this while been building toward his first major win for quite some time. The question in front of him is a daunting one: Can he stare down one of the great major winners of the last 50 years and keep him from joining a list of five-time major champions that includes the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Byron Nelson?
There is precedent that says this is not out of the question.
Since winning his fourth major (2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black), Koepka has faltered late at the 2019 U.S. Open, 2020 PGA Championship, 2021 PGA Championship and most recently the 2023 Masters. It’s not that Koepka can’t close anymore — I doubt anyone truly believes that — it’s just that he hasn’t recently.
As for what Hovland has learned from his own recent near-misses at majors? He preached patience and a focus on using his elite approach play to his advantage by playing to the middle of greens and not ripping at every flag.
“Any chance you have to play in the final group in a Sunday on a major, that’s pretty special,” said Hovland. “But the mindset is just going to be, I play my own game, and obviously I want to win, but I am just going to play what I think is the right play on every single shot. And if I get beat, I get beat, but the plan is to not give it away. So, hopefully, by just executing strategy, I’ll have a chance … when I get through on 18.”
Winning major championships is insanely difficult. Doing so by slaying one of the great major champions of all time when he holds the lead and the cards going into the finale? That degree of difficulty is as high as it gets.
Hovland seems undeterred, though. He’s not caught up in the history of the moment, almost certainly doesn’t know about Koepka’s opportunity to knot things up with Ballesteros and Nelson, and won’t be rattled if Brooks starts stomping around Oak Hill early looking to flex his way to a fifth.
No, Hovland — the only player with a realistic chance to win (barring a completely neutral or even subpar round from Koepka that might put others in contention) — will throw that Norwegian metal on the headphones and bash his way around Oak Hill just as he’s done all week.
Few golfers are better at staying in their lanes. Few golfers are better with an iron in their hands right now. And few golfers would find a date with Koepka at the first tee in the last pairing more comfortable than Hovland. He’s ready to win his first. Now he has to just go do it.
Here are three other golfers who might be able to catch Koepka on Sunday.
Bryson DeChambeau (-3, three shots back): The 2020 U.S. Open champion is live as a winner. I could not be more impressed with how much attention DeChambeau, who has seemingly been distracted by everything but golf in recent months, has been getting this week. He still does goofy things on the course (he walked to No. 18 punching air after Koepka made a 40-footer in his face on Saturday) and gives ridiculous quotes (he spoke about the different shapes his body takes on after Round 3), but he’s leading the field in strokes gained off the tee, sitting second in driving distance and fourth in accuracy. The good news for DeChambeau, who certainly knows what it feels like to pull away with a major on a Sunday, is that he’s ready for the moment.
“Nothing’s changed,” he said Saturday. “Same person. Have a little more patience, I will say that.”
If you’re not rooting for a Brooks-Bryson playoff like we got with Justin Thomas and Will Zalatoris this time a year ago, I’m not sure what to tell you.
Scottie Scheffler (-2, four shots back): The No. 2 player in the world, who has stolen a page out of the Koepka playbook over the last two years en route to wins at the Masters and Players Championship, struggled mightily with the putter Saturday as he shot 73 to fall four back of the lead. That screams bounce back in the final round to me. Scheffler is still hitting it wonderfully (he’s third in the field from tee to green), and if the putter pops, he’ll either win or come close. Of all the players in the top 10 right now, Scheffler may be the toughest to put away. Unfortunately for him, he might be slightly too far back, too.
“I didn’t shoot myself out of it on a day where the condition were tough and I didn’t have my best stuff,” said Scheffler. “I hung in there pretty good and didn’t post the number I wanted to, but I’m still only four back going into tomorrow, and if I go out and have a great round, I think I’ll have a decent chance.”
Rory McIlroy (-1, five shots back): Though Conners and Justin Rose are also in the mix here, McIlroy gets the nod ahead of both of them because his ceiling of play is much higher. I’m unconvinced that McIlroy has that level of play in his bag this week — a herculean effort is needed to win majors, especially when coming from five back, and McIlroy is 26th off the tee (terrible for him). However, I’m quite convinced that if he starts running downhill late Sunday, he could absolutely shoot 31 on the back nine and steal a fifth major of his own (first since 2014).
Rick Gehman is joined by Kyle Porter and Patrick McDonald to break down a wet and eventful moving day at the 2023 PGA Championship. Brooks Koepka makes a move and Viktor Hovland remains near the top of the board. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.