22 May 2023 | Professional golf |
Clayton: The best of the best is compelling
by Mike Clayton
With all the pressure of a major championship, a brutal course and Victor Hovland challenging brilliantly until a disaster at the 16th, Brooks Koepka won a championship which people really care about. Aside from the debilitated Tiger Woods and 52 -year-old Phil Mickelson, no contemporary player has more major wins than Koepka, a staggering statistic given Rory McIlroy won his fourth in 2014 but has been in a conspicuous and unfathomable drought ever since. Koepka started out with a succession of brilliant iron shots and a trio of birdies from the second hole. It’d have been easy to assume at that point it was over but a wild drive right into the water at the sixth and another iron far right at the seventh gave Hovland more than hope. The two were fantastic from there. Koepka hit another fine iron into the 10th and made a three, then plugged a long iron in the lip of the front bunker at the next to hand the shot back. Immediately the American hit back with a long pitch to 12 feet then a nice putt for birdie the 12th. Then came a critical exchange. Hovland drove into the long grass left of the par-5 13th fairway, chopped it out and hit a fine iron to 15 feet. Koepka misjudged the wind with his much shorter third, then putted barely inside Hovland’s ball from far off the green. Hovland holed and with the lead gone if he missed, the champion rolled in an incredibly difficult downhill, left-to-right slider for a five. The end, though, came quickly. Hovland, one behind, drove right into the bunker at the 16th and then hit a nine iron straight into the seam separating the long grass lip from the sand. Brooks knocked his wedge to a few feet and a one-shot lead was, in barely more than an instant, an insurmountable four-shot gap. Our best was Cameron Davis who tied-fourth which, aside from a massive cheque, earned him a place in next year’s Masters. He had a rough run of it earlier in the year, missing five consecutive cuts before he tied for sixth at The Players Championship. The Open Champion, Cam Smith was a couple further back, tied for ninth, after a beautiful 65 and Min Woo Lee (T18) again played well in a big event, confirming what most think of his flashy and very watchable game. Min-Woo’s game and presence on the course is wildly different from his more taciturn, consistent and higher-ranked sister Minjee but without question both are amongst our best handful of players. No one really cares what Koepka does on the LIV Tour because it’s historically meaningless, but everyone cares what he does in the major championships because his accumulation of them is making him an historically significant figure. Seemingly everyone has a side in the LIV versus PGA Tour debate and at some point, it becomes an impasse where there is nowhere to go unless someone concedes. Maybe the funders of the Saudi league tire of losing money on what seems from the outside to be a business with no chance of ever recovering much of the investment. Or maybe the pool of funding is bottomless. Others think a compromise inevitable but it’s not hard to imagine the reaction of the players who knocked back tens of millions of dollars (hundreds even) to switch sides if those who took the money are allowed back to the tour. Observing it all from the outside is fascinating and no one really has any idea where the professional game ends up. The majors, though, have largely stayed above the fray and this week again proved the game’s better when all the best players are competing. But we knew that already.
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