Some people at the gym turned to Koepka and gushed about being in the presence of the No. 1 golfer in the world. “It’s like, ‘OK, I don’t know what to say to that,” Koepka said with a laugh.
Then they arrived at Bellerive Country Club, where Koepka shot a 4-under-par 66 to put himself in position for a third major championship — which would put him two ahead of his buddy, Johnson, and yes, they are counting.
But Koepka’s 54-hole total of 12-under 198 topped a leader board so intriguing that he became easy to overlook again. Adam Scott, the Australian star who became the first player from his country to win the Masters, was two strokes back after posting a 65. Scott was a stroke ahead of a threesome that included Spain’s rising superstar, Jon Rahm, who carded a 66; Rickie Fowler, the fan favorite who posted a 69; and Gary Woodland, who held the lead through the first two rounds.
Lurking at 8 under heading into Sunday’s final round was Tiger Woods, who moved into contention with a third-round 66. Oh, and Johnson? He struggled to a 72 and was tied for 21st.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of star power, and it should be, it’s a major championship,” Koepka said. “You should see the best players in the world come to the top.”
Koepka, 28, the two-time reigning U.S. Open champion, also had to share the spotlight with another 28-year-old, Englishman Matt Wallace, who aced the par-3 16th on the way to a 68 that moved him into a tie for 21st.
Koepka did not care. “I’m just focused on me,” he said.
With its straightforward layout and receptive bentgrass greens, Bellerive has been a bigger boon to the players’ psyches than any high-priced mental coach. Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, has felt all summer as if his game was rounding into form, but until this week, the proof was not in his scores.
Scott’s best finish in the first three majors of the year was a tie for 17th at last month’s British Open. Like Fowler, who is 0 for 35 in the majors, Scott has fallen short of his expected heights, with only one major title at age 38. But Scott vaulted into contention here on the strength of his putting, which has historically been his weakness.
“I would love to be in the mix coming down the stretch and have the chance to hole some putts to win,” said Scott, who was third in the field in putting in the third round.
Rahm, 23, sometimes lets his temper flare on the course, which can lead to ugly marks on his scorecard. But a benign Bellerive gave him scant reason to lose his cool: He looked calm and collected in putting together his lowest round in a major.
“If there was one thing in my game that wasn’t feeling quite as good as usual it was my driving, but I still managed to keep it in play,” said Rahm, who found 10 of 14 fairways. “There were a couple of wild misses, but I was smart enough today to know where I could miss and where I could allow myself to miss.”
Woodland, whose putting woes recently led Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo to say that he “at times looks like a weight lifter when he has the short stick in his hand,” ranks 14th in the field in putting at the PGA Championship. His third round was derailed by a triple bogey on the par-4 10th, leaving him 1 over for the day, but Woodland was poised for his first top-10 finish in a major in more than a decade on the PGA Tour.
Jordan Spieth came into the week feeling uncomfortable at address, which was not exactly conducive to carving out the victory that he needed here to complete a career Grand Slam. Before his second round, Spieth frantically tried to fix his swing on the range. He repeatedly whipped out his phone from his back pocket and handed it to his caddie, Michael Greller, who videotaped the swing for Spieth to study.
He figured something out, playing the next 27 holes in 8 under to vault into contention, at 7 under for the tournament. But on the 12th hole of his third round, after covering the front nine in 31 strokes, Spieth came unspooled.
His drive caromed off a cart path and came to rest in an area surrounded by trees. He used a 5-iron on his next shot to try to reach the green — instead of a 6- or 7-iron just to clear the trees — and his ball bounced off a limb and out of bounds, leading to a triple-bogey 7.
“It was just a perfect storm,” said Spieth, who carded a 69 and was at 4 under. He added, “I’m extremely excited about where my game is at, just very frustrated that I’ve worked my way into a chance to win this tournament just to kind of throw it away on a bad decision.”
Woods needed three ice baths before this tournament to recover from last week’s World Golf Championships event in Ohio, and after his second round was suspended by electrical storms, he faced the unenviable task of playing 29 holes Saturday in temperatures better suited for hot yoga than championship golf. Woods acknowledged that it was mentally difficult “grinding that hard for 29 holes in this heat.”
But Bellerive’s benevolence worked to Woods’ advantage. As he noted after finishing his second round, the greens were tailor-made for whatever ailed his putting because, he said, “You can take a lot of the break out and be very aggressive.”
The 42-year-old Woods played his 29 holes Saturday in 5 under to finish Saturday four strokes behind Koepka. But it was hard for him not to dwell on what might have been. On a day when his shotmaking harked back to his glory years, Woods failed to convert six birdie putts of 20 feet or less on his last nine.
The par-5 17th was doubly deflating. Woods reached the green in two, only to three-putt from 20 feet. Mental fatigue, he said, contributed to a par that felt like a punch.
“I thought that I should have played it faster than what I was thinking,” Woods said. “I didn’t do that, I rapped it past the hole and missed the putt.”
If Woods is going to win his 15th major here — and his first in a decade — he will have to come from behind, which he never did in the first 14 victories.
“I just wish I could have got myself a couple more shots closer to the lead,” Woods said, adding, “I’ve got to shoot a low round tomorrow and hopefully it will be enough.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
KAREN CROUSE © 2018 The New York Times