It’s also about to become the biggest major American sporting event since the novel coronavirus pandemic stilled the world, especially if one discounts that contest about gorging hot dogs. It’s also about to open the major golf year in the month that used to close same, with the virus having hurled the PGA Championship from May back to August, the U.S. Open from June to September, the Masters all the way from April to November, and the British Open into cancellation. And when the PGA Championship convenes without spectators Thursday to Sunday at TPC Harding Park in the preposterously pretty western edges of San Francisco, it’s also about …
It’s also about to remind us that in lousy old 2020, all that oddity can eclipse some serious gravity, burying even the fact that this PGA will stage the hunt for a sports feat that would qualify as bewildering.
Initiated souls might even remember, in this time of hard remembering: If Brooks Koepka could dip into his bales of major know-how and win the 102nd PGA Championship, he would have won three straight. He would become the first man to do so since Walter Hagen in 1924 to 1927, back when the event used match play rather than stroke play to determine its winner, and when Hagen won in French Lick, Ind.; Olympia Fields, Ill.; Long Island and Dallas.
Asked on Wednesday at the World Golf Championships St. Jude Invitational in Memphis if he could carry his enviable confidence to San Francisco after the trying season he has had in 2020, Koepka said, “I am defending, aren’t I?”
“Yeah,” replied the knowledgeable questioner.
“Okay, just checking,” Koepka winked.
Unrelated: The next day in Memphis, he shot 62.
In fact, as Koepka has turned 30 as one of only 29 men in the last 160 years to win at least four majors, it’s helpful to remember people used to needle him for being better at majors than at non-majors. Of all the nitpicks to withstand in life, that would have to rank among the most desirable. He still has four major titles and three other PGA Tour titles, four of the hardest and three of the not-as-hardest.
If Koepka could make it five and three, or even five and four should he win in Memphis this weekend, he would continue his dizzying trek up into the stars among the sport’s hallowed names. Already in 2018 he became the fifth player to win the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in one year, after Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Now he would manage something Woods couldn’t quite in 2001 and 2008, when Woods came off consecutive PGA Championship titles to finish tied for 29th in 2001 in Georgia and to miss 2008 in Michigan for surgery after his towering U.S. Open win on a mangled leg.
“Koepka” would turn up almost alongside “Hagen,” who himself won 11 majors, third all-time. “To even have a chance to put my name with his would be incredible, and it would be super-special,” Koepka once said, long ago.
That statement came back on Feb. 17 and allegedly upon this same planet, when the PGA held a news conference with Koepka, yielding a transcript that feels like some sort of breezy fairy tale and contains not one mention of the word “virus.” Yeah, sure, he’d would try to hit some balls into famed McCovey Cove when he got to San Francisco! Yeah, sure, he had seen the Giants at Oracle Park before, snagged some tickets from catcher Buster Posey, whom Koepka knew from Florida State! Yeah, he said of Harding Park: “It’s a big-boy golf course,” having been there for the WGC match-play event in 2015, when he bested Russell Henley and Marc Warren but then bowed to J.B. Holmes.
Back then, everyone inclined to remember might have remembered: Koepka showed the considerable intestines to ignore booming crowd noise for Woods to win the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive near St. Louis and to ignore booming crowd noise for Dustin Johnson to win the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black Course on Long Island.
Since his celestial majors record from 2019 — second at the Masters, first at the PGA, second at the U.S. Open, fourth at the British — golf has treated him to one of the thuds it seems to administer peerlessly. In the calendar year 2020, he has gone tied for 43rd, cut, tied for 47th, 91-day coronavirus hiatus, tied for 32nd, seventh, cut, tied for 62nd, cut, before contending early in Memphis (leading after Thursday, tied for third after Friday). He has done this all while having reporters ask the necessary question nobody hopes to hear, “How’s your knee?”
(It hurts after a long ball-beating session and walking downhill, he said here and there, but it’s not the reason he has sagged.)
He arrived in Minnesota for the 3M Open two Mondays back and riffed on some of those greatest hits of talking to oneself in a lonely sport: “I just need to play good. I’ve played so bad lately. Yeah, just trying to find things. Every week I feel like the results aren’t there, but it’s getting better and better. My good shots are good, but I’ve just got to bring that bottom level up. I’ve hit some real costly shots.”
Luckily, he also rummaged around to remind listeners of the cocksureness still bubbling within. To a question about the revelation of long, long hitters such as Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau, he said: “I don’t need to keep up with anybody. I’m good.”
By the time he got from that cut in Minnesota to that 62 in Memphis, where he won last year, he told of how being coached can change things rapidly and how he had just consulted Phil Kenyon about putting. In one of those passages that helps explain how the game can menace even its masters, he said: “First off, you always know my ball sits off the toe [of the putter], so that’s changed; it’s over the center, over the line now. My heel is usually off the ground, and it’s no longer off the ground. Just the way my left hand kind of works through the putting stroke has become a little different.”
Of his short-game coach Pete Cowen, he told reporters in Memphis: “I think with Pete, it’s psychological. He’ll beat me down, tell me I can’t do something; he’ll jump on me pretty good. And I enjoy that, when someone tells me I can’t do something. You know, telling me I’m not going to win, it will be a while.”
If only enough people might tell Koepka it will be a while, sometime well beyond next week, maybe golf’s first men’s major of 2020 could carve a little slice of golf history in this, of all years.