Koepka heads to Royal Birkdale a changed man
Four years ago Brooks Koepka was a Challenge Tour player who earned his place in the The Open by winning International Final Qualifying at Sunningdale.
But this year he will make his way to Royal Birkdale for The 146th Open as the reigning US Open champion.
The 27-year-old American’s stunning four-stroke victory over Brian Harman and Hideki Matsuyama at Erin Hills continues a remarkable journey which has taken an unconventional route.
It began on the European Tour’s secondary circuit and qualification for his Open debut in 2013 came the very day after he claimed a third victory of the season, thus earning Battlefield Promotion to the main tour.
Very nearly four years to the day he came of age with a first major victory that has vaulted him into the world’s top ten.
Only six players have ever completed the Us Open-Open Championship double in the same season, the last being Tiger Woods in 2000, but Koepka has proved he has the game for links golf, finishing tied tenth on The Old Course at St Andrews in 2015.
He also said, following qualification in 2013: “Any major is special but The Open is up there. Everybody wants to win it.”
Koepka’s playing partner for the final 36 holes in Wisconsin was Tommy Fleetwood who will take heart from his solo fourth, a major championship career best finish for the Englishman who has missed the cut in all three of his Open appearances.
It’s an unlikely record for a golfer who is a three-time top five finisher in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, played at two Open venues, The Old Course and Carnoustie as well as nearby Kingsbarns.
Fleetwood was born and bred in Southport so this year’s Open promises to be a thrilling week in a year that has seen him claim a first European Tour win in four years and a personal best finish in the World Golf Championship (second in the Mexico Championship).
“It might be overwhelming or it might be great but at the end of the day I’ll have a lot of support which is fantastic,” he said after a final round 72 at Erin Hills. “It’s going to be brilliant playing for the home crowd, a bit of a different atmosphere to this week.
“Not many people get the chance to play a major, or even a tournament where they’ve grown up, so it’s special for me.
“Birkdale is a brilliant track. The key is driving, it’s one of the hardest golf courses in the world off the tee.”
He noted that he hadn’t played the course too much growing up as it was forbidden fruit for him and then added with a smile: “Me and my dad used to sneak on, hit a few shots and then sneak off before anyone saw us. But nobody knows about that.”
Joint runner-up Matsuyama, who finished tied sixth at Muirfield in 2013, was yet another player to post a major championship career best finish.
Heading to Royal Birkdale he will be aware that the course witnessed a brilliant display by Lu Liang Huan in 1971. The Taiwanese player’s second place finish remains the closest an Asian golfer has come to victory in The Open.
A winner of five titles in just nine starts during a hot spell at the end of last season and beginning of this, Matsuyama’s performance at Erin Hills marks a return to that stunning form and he will believe he has a great shot at becoming his continent’s first winner of the Claret Jug.