ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The last time Brooks Koepka had a lead entering the final round of a major championship, he shot a 3-over 75 on Sunday at the 2023 Masters and tied for second behind winner Jon Rahm.
After posting a second straight 4-under 66 in the third round of the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on Saturday, Koepka has the outright lead at 6 under, 1 stroke better than Norway’s Viktor Hovland and Canada’s Corey Conners.
So what will Koepka do differently to try and capture his fifth major championship and become the first player from the LIV Golf League to win one?
“I promise I won’t show up like [the Masters] tomorrow,” Koepka told CBS after Saturday’s round. “I won’t have that thought process. It’ll be completely different and we’ll see where it puts me.”
Koepka, a two-time winner of both the PGA Championship and U.S. Open, actually had a 4-shot lead when play resumed in the third round of the weather-delayed Masters in April. He had a 2-stroke lead entering the final round but was never able to get anything going. Earlier this week, he called it “choking.”
“Learning what I learned at Augusta kind of helped [Saturday],” Koepka said. “Like I said, I won’t do it again the rest of my career. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t go play bad. You can play good, you’ll play bad, but I’ll never have that mindset or that won’t ever be the reason (he doesn’t win).”
The bad news for Hovland, Conners and the rest of the field? In the four previous instances in which Koepka was the 54-hole leader or co-leader at a major, he won three times, at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 2018 and 2019 PGA.
Of course, that was before Koepka suffered a debilitating knee injury that required surgery in 2021. He acknowledged that the injury was one of the reasons he left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf in June. He reportedly received about $100 million in guaranteed earnings from the Saudi Arabian-financed circuit.
Koepka insists he’s a different player now.
“I think everyone misconstrues the confidence for just the injury,” Koepka said. “You ask any athlete if they are hurt, and they can’t do something. I mean, imagine if you can’t get out of bed or can’t walk. You’ve got a pebble in your shoe, you kind of start to adjust, and that’s the thing. I just got into bad habits. It’s tough. You can’t play. I came back too soon and played for too long. But look, I moved on from that now, so I’m pretty pleased.”
Koepka’s famous confidence has also returned. When a reporter asked how Saturday’s pairing with LIV Golf’s Bryson DeChambeau went, Koepka responded: “I mean, I shot 4 under, so you tell me.” DeChambeau, one of Koepka’s rivals on the PGA Tour, posted a even-par 70.
There’s no question about it: Big-game Brooks is back.
Having a major moment
Michael Block, the club pro from Mission Viejo, California, won’t go away. He’s tied for eighth place after posting a third straight even-par 70. The last club pro to be in the top 10 after 54 holes at a PGA Championship was Bob Boyd at Shoal Creek in Alabama in 1990.
The best finish by a PGA club pro who advanced through the PGA Professional Championship was a tie for 11th by Lonnie Nielsen in 1986 and Tommy Aycock in 1974.
Block is only 3 strokes out of fourth place, which would secure him an invitation to the 2024 Masters. A top-10 finish would get him a spot in next month’s RBC Canadian Open; a top-15 would get him back to the next year’s PGA Championship; and a two-way tie for third would earn him special temporary membership on the PGA Tour.
Block also knows who is ahead of him entering the final round. He’ll be playing the final round with Rory McIlroy.
He opened the third round with a bogey on No. 1, but then he got a quick bounce-back birdie with a 17-foot putt on No. 2. After a double bogey on the sixth hole, he made the turn at 2-over 37. Block made a 12½-foot birdie putt on No. 11, followed by a pair of 8-footers for birdies on Nos. 14 and 15.
Block, the head pro at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club, is second in the field in strokes gained: putting (6.236) through three rounds and is second in driving accuracy (27 of 42 fairways).
“He’s obviously a great player and has played in a number of these, so I’m sure he’s getting comfortable and he’s playing really well,” said Patrick Cantlay, who plays with Block a few times a year. “It’s great to see. He’s solid, hits it very straight, and on a golf course like this where you have to play from the fairway, that’s a big advantage.”
Block said he didn’t even look at his third round playing partner, Justin Rose, for three holes because he’s been a fan of his for a long time.
“I didn’t look at Rosey’s face for the first three holes,” Block said. “I’m a big fan of Rosey and I’ve watched him my whole life, and I knew it could get a little too intimidating, the fact that, holy crap, I’m sitting here playing with Justin Rose, and that might get too big for me. I literally just kind of looked down, looked at his shoes the first couple holes, and got off to a decent start and went on from there.”
Block also knows who is ahead of him entering the final round.
“I love Rosey, but I can compete against these guys, to be honest,” Block said. “I can compete against them. I can hang. I can post a 3 [under] or 4 under tomorrow, especially if I get the fairways rolling again.”
Block even has other PGA Tour players’ wives pulling for him this week. There’s this tweet from Adam Hadwin’s wife:
Watching Michael Block play is making me so happy . No offense @ahadwingolf
— Jessica Hadwin (@jessicahadwin) May 20, 2023
And this one from Adam Schenk’s:
I’m obsessed with him!!
— Kourtney Schenk (@Kourtney_Schenk) May 20, 2023
McIlroy’s in the hunt
After posting a 1-over 71 in the first round, McIlroy wasn’t happy with his form and didn’t feel particularly well. He carded a 1-under 69 on both Friday and Saturday, however, and is back in the hunt at 1 under after 54 holes, 5 shots behind the leader.
After hitting a combined seven of 28 fairways in the first two rounds, McIlroy hit six of 14 in the third. He also needed only 25 putts on Saturday, five fewer than the opening round.
“I think just my attitude has been well,” McIlroy said. “My ability to just stick in there and show a little bit of grit and determination and not let rounds get away from me too much. I’d obviously like to be a couple of shots closer to the lead, but with how I’ve felt this week, if you had have told me on Thursday night that I’d be going into Sunday in the top five and with a realistic chance to win this golf tournament, I would have taken it.”
What will it take from McIlroy on Sunday to win? Perhaps a 5-under 65.
“I hope so,” McIlroy said. “If I look at [Saturday], I made enough birdies to shoot a score like that. I just needed to keep those mistakes off the card. I need to keep hope. I have to believe that there is a score like that out there, because looking at the board, it’s probably a score I’m going to have to shoot something like that to have a chance to win.”
The sick sixth
The par-4, 503-yard sixth hole has been the most difficult one this week by far. Through the third round, the average score on the dogleg-right hole is 4.564. There have been only 21 birdies with 178 pars, 143 bogeys, 41 double bogeys and five others.
Scottie Scheffler called it the “hardest hole I’ve ever played.”
Scheffler catches a break with his ball skipping over the water
Scottie Scheffler’s ball stays in play after skipping over the water hazard on the seventh hole.
On Friday, the sixth hole played to a scoring average of 4.75. According to Elias Sports Bureau, there were 90 par-five holes on the PGA Tour this season that played to a scoring average lower than 4.75. On Friday, it was the most difficult hole for a single round in the past 30 years at a PGA Championship.
The sixth hole requires a tee shot through a narrow chute between trees, with a creek and hazard on the right (where Tom Kim went for a mud bath) and two fairway bunkers on the left. It requires an approach shot over a creek and onto a green that is protected by bunkers on the right and a creek on the back left. Players have reached the green in regulation only 34.8% of the time this week.
“It’s crazy difficult,” Chile’s Mito Pereira said. “It’s 500 yards into the wind, water right. If you hit it in the rough, you are chipping out. Water around the green. I mean, it’s really, really tough.”
New York jeers
DeChambeau and Koepka were booed by New York fans on the first tee Saturday. They seemed to warm up to Koepka by the end of the round.
“Look, it’s New York, and I expect it here, I appreciate the fans, them doing that to me,” DeChambeau said. “It’s like, ‘OK, cool, no problem.’ I’ve got no problem, either way. If we got applause, that’s fantastic, and if not, you know what, whatever, it is what it is. It still was fun today.”
A double bogey on the sixth hole caused DeChambeau to lose some ground early. After posting a bogey on the par-5 13th, he had back-to-back birdies on Nos. 14 and 15 to get back to even par in the round. He is 3 under after 54 holes, 3 strokes behind Koepka.
The sixth hole has been especially difficult for DeChambeau, who is 3 over on the hole and 6 under on the other 17 this week. He carded a birdie on the sixth in the first round but double bogeys in the second and third.
“I felt like I shot a few under par out there despite 6 getting me again,” DeChambeau said. “I really didn’t play the hole bad. I flared it a little bit and the wind picked it up and just barely went in the water today. Drove it beautifully on that hole and continue to drive it well tomorrow on the whole golf course, and just hit my irons a little bit better.”
Phil Mickelson became the oldest man to ever win a major championship when he claimed his sixth at the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, at age 50.
This week, Mickelson also became only the fourth player in history to make 100 cuts in a major championship, joining Jack Nicklaus (131), Gary Player (102) and Tom Watson (100). Tiger Woods, if you’re wondering, has made 77 of 91 cuts in majors.
Mickelson, 52, told Sky Sports on Saturday that he wasn’t aware of the milestone. He joked that it “shows my age.”
“This first 100 cuts has been interesting,” Mickelson said. “I think the second 100 is going to be the most interesting part.”
🗣️ “This first 100 cuts has been interesting. The second 100 is going to be the most interesting part.”
Phil Mickelson reacts to reaching 100 made cuts in Major Championships. pic.twitter.com/whNAHmgHC2
— Sky Sports Golf (@SkySportsGolf) May 20, 2023