ERIN, WISCONSIN – On the last day of the U.S. Open, Hideki Matsuyama was better than everyone else. Better than Brian Harman, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and the rest of the congested leaderboard.
Just not good enough.
Matsuyama shot a 6-under 66 on Sunday to pull within one of the lead, before Brooks Koepka pulled away to win his first major championship. The 25-year-old Matsuyama had two of the best rounds of the tournament — he shot 65 on Friday — but a 2-over 74 in his opening round loomed large as the scores got lower and lower at a forgiving Erin Hills.
“You’ve got to put four good rounds together,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter. “I played two good rounds, but it wasn’t enough.”
Matsuyama’s 66 was the best score on a windy final day, one better than Koepka. The average score in the fourth round was 73.9.
But he had to settle for a tie for second with Harman, four strokes back of the champion.
“I played really well today,” said Matsuyama, who watched Koepka close out his title on a TV in the clubhouse. “Came up a little bit short. No regrets, but I did play well.”
Matsuyama equaled Isao Aoki’s record for the best finish by a Japanese man in any of the four majors. Aoki finished second to the legendary Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open.
Hisako Higuchi, winner of the LPGA Championship in 1977, remains the only Japanese golfer to win a major championship on either the PGA or LPGA tours.
Koepka broke away from Matsuyama and the pack with three straight birdies on the back nine and closed with a 5-under 67. A par on the final hole tied Rory McIlroy’s record score to par at 16 under for a four-shot victory.
Tied for the lead with six holes to play, Koepka made an 8-foot par putt on the 13th hole. As Harman began to fade, Koepka poured it on with birdies over the next three holes, lightly pumping his fist after each one.
His reaction was subdued, just like his close friend and last year’s U.S. Open champion, Dustin Johnson. They spend time a lot of time together on the course, in the gym and at home, so Koepka has seen that U.S. Open trophy plenty at Johnson’s house in south Florida.
And now he gets to keep it for a year, with his name on it.
It capped quite a journey for the 27-year-old Floridian. Without a card on any tour when he got out of Florida State, he filled his passport with stamps from the most unlikely outposts in golf while playing the minor leagues on the European Tour — Kazakhstan and Kenya, Portugal and India and throughout Europe.
Koepka tied for fourth at the U.S. Open three years ago, which helped him earn a PGA Tour card, and from there he powered his way from obscurity to his first PGA Tour victory in Phoenix, his first Ryder Cup team last fall and now a major championship.
Harman’s chances ended with two straight bogeys, and a bogey on the par-5 18th hole gave him a 72.
Koepka, who finished at 16-under 272, became the seventh straight first-time winner of a major championship, and it was the first time since 1998-2000 that Americans won their national championship three straight years.
Tommy Fleetwood, who played alongside Koepka and closed with a 72 to finish fourth, played the Challenge Tour a year before Koepka arrived.
“It gives you a good grounding,” Fleetwood said. “Obviously, Brooks dealt with it amazingly. He came and kicked everyone’s (behind) over there, didn’t he? But he’s proven for a long time how good he is. Now he’s done it in a major.”
It was only fitting that Koepka left Erin Hills with yet another record matched or broken.
McIlroy finished at 16-under 268 when he won on rain-softened Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open. But the low scoring went much deeper than that. Only six players had ever reached double digits under par in the previous 116 times at the U.S. Open. McIlroy and Tiger Woods (12 under at Pebble Beach in 2000) had been the only players to finish there.
This week alone, nine players reached at least 10 under and seven finished there.
Matsuyama finished in fine style to secure second place, getting up and down for birdie with a chip from the rough next to the 18th green.
He rolled in a long putt from the fringe of the green for his second birdie of the day on four, and then hit his approach to tap-in range on the fifth for another.
But it was on the back nine that his charge really gained steam.
A solid approach on the par-4 11th allowed him to roll in for birdie and he repeated that on the 12th to go 4-under.
A beautifully controlled chip allowed him to tap in for birdie on 14, and after giving one back on 15, he leaned on the short stick to get within striking distance of second place on the 16th.
Xander Schauffele, a rookie on the PGA Tour playing in his first U.S. Open, birdied his last hole for a 69 to tie for fifth at 10-under 268 along with Bill Haas (69) and Rickie Fowler (72), who was in contention at yet another major only to fall back.
Justin Thomas, coming off a 9-under 63 that matched the major championship scoring record and was the first 9-under round at a U.S. Open, went out in 39 and closed with a 75 to tie for ninth.
The week ended with 31 players under par, breaking the U.S. Open record of 28 players at Medinah in 1990. There were 133 sub-par rounds, nine more than the previous record in that 1990 U.S. Open.