ERIN, Wis. — The final round of the US Open began as a jumbled mess, with nine players lurking within four shots of the lead.
By the time the final groups reached the turn, the championship became a three-man shootout. And by the middle of the back nine, only one player remained standing.
Brooks Koepka was virtually flawless on Sunday, shooting 5-under-par 67 in the final round at Erin Hills while most of the field faltered in the toughest, windiest conditions of the tournament.
Golf’s last seven majors have been won by first-timers, and this weekend it was Koepka’s turn, outlasting Brian Harmon and Hideki Matsuyama to finish the championship at 16-under and earn a $2.16 million winner’s check.
“It’s unbelievable. I don’t even know what to say right now,” Koepka said as he accepted his trophy. “To get the calls and text messages I did last night was pretty special — everybody just giving me a piece of advice, just stick to what I’ve done and that’s what I did today. I felt so confident out there, it was great.”
Matsuyama did his best to back-door his way into contention, shooting 6-under 66 to shoot up the leaderboard after starting the day six strokes off the lead. Matsuyama birdied No. 18 to close within one shot of Koepka with five holes to play, but Koepka turned on the afterburners late Sunday. He carded three straight birdies on Nos. 14-16 to create plenty of distance between himself and the rest of the field.
“You’ve got to tip your cap,” said Harman, who tied Matsuyama for second at 12-under. “He went and won the golf tournament on the back nine.”
Erin Hills had been wide open all tournament long, with light winds and soft conditions leading to new records for birdies, low rounds, and players under par. Koepka’s 16-under tied Rory McIlroy for the lowest score in relation to par in US Open history, and Koepka is just the third US Open winner to finish double digits below par (Tiger Woods). This year was also the first time that the runner-up finished double digits below par (the top seven on this year’s leaderboard all did so).
But Erin Hills, hosting its first major championship, finally played like a US Open course on Sunday, with 20-25 mile per hour winds wreaking havoc on the tee box and playing like the difficult links-style course that the United States Golf Association envisioned when it booked the event.
One by one the contenders dropped off Sunday afternoon. Harman, the leader after the third round, only carded one birdie on the front and then fell out of contention with back-to-back bogeys on 12 and 13. Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Reed, and Si Woo Kim only managed even-par or worse.
Justin Thomas, who shot a US Open-record 9-under 63 on Saturday, shot 75 and finished tied for ninth. Rickie Fowler, near the top of the leaderboard since Thursday’s opening round, struggled with his putter and couldn’t string enough birdies together, shooting even par and finishing tied for fifth.
That left only Koepka and Matsuyama, who shot the two lowest rounds of the day.
“It made me feel a lot better seeing Brooks shoot 5-under,” Thomas said. “I would have had to play some pretty spectacular golf to catch him.”
Koepka, a 27-year-old from West Palm Beach, Fla., flexed his muscles off the tee box all weekend (seventh in driving average in the field) and showed excellent touch with his putter on Sunday.
Koepka’s final round included a 34-foot birdie putt on No. 8, a crucial 9-footer for par on No. 13, and a 17-foot birdie putt on No. 16 that iced his victory.
Koepka’s birdie run from 14-16 was the culmination of a dominant stretch on the back nine all week. Koepka was a cumulative 12-under on the back nine, with his only bogey coming Sunday on No. 10 thanks to a three-putt.
The wide open fairways and soft greens of Erin Hills created the perfect course for Koepka.
“It was kind of bombs away,” he said. You could hit it far and the fairways were generous enough. Couple of these par 5s, I don’t even need to hit driver and I can still get there.”
Koepka, is one of a handful of young golfers looking to take the torch from Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. And Koepka, ranked No. 22 in the world, took a bit of an unusual route to the winner’s circle on Sunday.
After starring at Florida State, where he was a three-time All-American, Koepka began his professional career on the Challenge Tour in Europe in 2012, and then on the European Tour. Koepka won five total events in Europe, where he met his Scottish caddie, Ricky Elliot, and learned to handle windy links courses, similar to the setup at Erin Hills.
Koepka came back home to play on the PGA Tour in 2014, and since then has won the 2015 Waste Management Open and earned top-10 finishes at the British Open and PGA Championship, a top-five at the US Open, and an 11th-place finish at this year’s Masters.
Those accomplishments were just a lead-up to Sunday’s life-changing, record-tying victory.
“That’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced, and to do it on Father’s Day it’s pretty neat,” Koepka said. “I didn’t exactly get my dad a card, so this works.”