Planet Golf — 06 February 2021 by GW staff and news services
Koepka charges for one-stroke victory

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – For the last 18 months the question has been asked in TV studios, press boxes and grill rooms. Heck, even Koepka himself asked it. 

“There was a period maybe for about two months where I just questioned whether I was ever going to be the same,” he said after shooting a final-round 65 to win the Waste Management Phoenix Open by a shot over Xander Schauffele (71) and Kyoung-Hoon Lee (68). “Whether I was even going to be somewhat remotely the same golfer that I ever was.”

Comebacks were the story of the week, what with Schauffele chasing his first victory in over two years and Jordan Spieth (72, T4) trying to win for the first time in three and a half.

Koepka, though, turned his comeback into a handcrafted, 20-pound “Chrystal Thunderbird” trophy of crystal on a mesquite-wood base. His pedal-to-the-mettle finish salted away his eighth PGA TOUR title and moved him from 73rd to 12th in the FedExCup. After battling a left knee injury for much of the last year and a half, he’s finally 100 percent, and it showed.

Shaking off a bogey at the second hole, he made two eagles, went 5 under for the last six holes for the second straight day, overcame a five-shot deficit, and won for the first time since the 2019 World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

“It feels like it’s been forever,” he said after collecting his second Waste Management Phoenix Open title (2015) – and breaking a streak of three straight missed cuts coming into the week. 

Steve Stricker (67, T4), who at 53 was vying to become the oldest-ever TOUR winner, played with Koepka and was more than an interested observer. He will captain the U.S. Ryder Cup Team at Whistling Straits later this year, and Koepka is a mainstay on such teams.

“I catch myself though rooting for guys, like Brooks, and then I’ve got to pull myself back and say, Wait a second, I’m trying to win this thing, too,” Stricker said with a laugh. “I want to see him play well because I think he can be a huge help to this team in September.” 

Part of what Koepka did well, Stricker added, was simply hang around. After making eagle at the par-5 third hole, he made nine straight pars to set up his big finish from 13-18. The biggest shot of that stretch was arguably his chip-in for eagle at the driveable, par-4 17th hole. 

“Last year didn’t happen,” Koepka said earlier in the week.

His victory Sunday further puts an especially challenging period in the rear-view mirror. 

Koepka had stem cell treatment on his left knee in 2019, slipped on wet concrete and re-injured the tendon late that year. He pulled out of the Presidents Cup, and was never healthy in 2020. The knee wasn’t torn enough to require surgery, but Koepka knew it didn’t feel right. He says the low point came in July as he shot a final-round 80 for a T62 finish at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide.  

“I was in excruciating pain,” he said.

Unable to shift his weight, he overburdened his hip and tore his labrum. Still, he somehow got into contention at the PGA Championship in August, only to suffer a poor final round and finish T29. Something had to give. He skipped the FedExCup Playoffs and U.S. Open for more rehab, including more stem cell therapy on his left knee and a cortisone injection in his hip. 

“My knee, no matter how much work and pain I was doing with Derek, my trainer, it just felt like it wasn’t progressing,” Koepka said. “… But we stuck with it. Those dark places, a lot of tears, questioning yourself, and in dark places mentally. You’ve got to come out of that.”

When he finally did, he was healthy but found himself missing the energy of the fans. With no one to play for, he said, it felt like he was just out for a casual round.

“At the end of the day we are kind of entertainers,” Koepka said earlier this week. “You know, it’s felt like going to play at home with my brother or my dad or buddies or something like that, and I’ll be honest, when I go play with them, I play terrible as well. I need the mojo.”

At the Waste Management, where there were bigger galleries than at any time since last March – a maximum of 5,000 fans per day – the mojo was back. Not all the way, but it was a start. And Koepka felt it. After gritting his teeth, working through the pain, and biding his time, he used it to fuel his closing kick in sunny Scottsdale. Nothing is wrong with Brooks Koepka anymore.


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A day after saying he needed to be patient about results, Jordan Spieth shot a 10-under 61 on Saturday for a share of the lead in the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He then repeated himself.

“What I’m looking forward to is just staying the course, trusting it,” Spieth said. “I have no expectations on the results tomorrow. I really don’t.”

Winless since the 2017 British Open, Spieth was tied with Xander Schauffele at 18-under 196.

“I built some freedom now seeing these results the first few days here to where I feel really good about the path I’m on,” Spieth said. “I feel good about what the long term ahead looks like for me. And sometimes that’s been in question. To myself.”

The 27-year-old Texan is trying recapture the form that carried him to 11 PGA Tour victories — three of them majors — in his first five seasons on the tour.

“I just felt like I stayed really, really patient and struck the ball well,” Spieth said. “Just tried to hit it to the fat parts of the greens when I was out of position and try and attack when I could.”

He raised the volume on the back nine at mostly empty TPC Scottsdale, drawing the biggest roar of the week from the limited crowd on the par-3 16th when he curled in a 36-footer for birdie and the outright lead.

Instead of the usual Saturday crowd that has topped 200,000 in recent years, attendance is capped at 5,000 a day — the most for a tour event during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I told Michael (caddie Greller) the only downside of the birdie putt on 16 is that it would have been arguably the loudest roar I’ve ever had if it were last year,” Spieth said. “But it was still loud.”

He followed with a 30-footer for birdie on 17 after driving well left on the short par 4.

“All of a sudden today when you kind of get in the thick of things and the crowd was feeding off and really willing those putts in with me, it actually kind of felt like nothing had happened,” Spieth said.

He made four birdies on the front nine for a share of the lead, then had an unexpected birdie on the par-4 10th when he chipped in from 70 feet.

“Got quite a few really good breaks,” Spieth said. “Each shot that ended up in the desert I think I ended up playing those holes 2 or 3 under today. You could easily end up in a cactus with an unplayable.”

Spieth hit inside a foot from 170 yards for birdie on the par-4 11th, then just missed eagling the two back-nine par 5s. On 13, he couldn’t get a 5 1/2-foot eagle putt to fall after a 208-yard second shot from the desert hardpan. On the water-guarded 15th, he left a 24-foot eagle putt inches short.

A week after missing the cut at Torrey Pines in his first start since the Masters in November, he matched his tour best of 61 set in the third round of his 2015 victory in the John Deere Classic.

The fourth-ranked Schauffele, coming off a second-place tie at Torrey Pines in his hometown event, shot a 65 to match Spieth at 18-under 196. Schauffele birdied four of the last holes, making a 7-footer on 17 to tie Spieth.

“I just kind of hung in there and sort of capitalized on the holes I needed to on the back nine,” Schauffele said.

Spieth and Schauffele were last paired together in the final group on the last round of the 2018 British Open at Carnoustie. Schauffele shot a 74 to tie for second behind Francesco Molinari, and Spieth had a 76 to tie for ninth.

“Hopefully, we both play a little bit better,” Spieth said.

Scottie Scheffler and Kyoung-Hoon Lee each shot 66 to get to 15 under.

Third-ranked Justin Thomas, third the last two years in the event, had a 64 to join Louis Oosthuizen (63) at 14 under. Thomas squandered five strokes on two holes late Thursday and early Friday, making a triple bogey on 17 in the first round and opening the second with a double on 10.

Steve Stricker, the 53-year-old U.S. Ryder Cup captain trying to become the oldest winner in PGA Tour history, had a 69 to drop into a tie for seventh at 13 under with Brooks Koepka (66) and James Hahn (66). Stricker began the day a stroke behind Schauffele after opening rounds of 65 and 66.

“I actually played from tee-to-green better than I did the first two days, I thought,” Stricker said. “Hit a lot of quality shots. Just didn’t make the putts that I had been making the last couple days.”

Jon Rahm, the former Arizona State star who tops the field at No. 2 in the world, had a 68 to reach 10 under. … No. 6 Rory McIlroy was 6 under after a 70. He’s playing the event for the first time.

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