PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Four years ago, less than a week before he won his second consecutive P.G.A. Championship, Brooks Koepka allowed the world inside his swaggering mind.
“One hundred fifty-six in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat,” he said at Bethpage in 2019. “You figure about half of them won’t play well from there, so you’re down to about maybe 35,” he added. “And then from 35, some of them just — pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys.”
Keep in contention long enough, he reasoned, and “good things are going to happen.”
He returned to the mix last month at the Masters Tournament, where he surrendered his lead to Jon Rahm during the final round. And now he is in the mix this weekend at the P.G.A. Championship at Oak Hill Country Club, where he fired a field-best four-under-par 66 on a rain-soaked Saturday, giving him a one-stroke lead over Corey Conners and Viktor Hovland with a round to play. He had also scored a tournament-leading 66 on Friday, after a 72 on Thursday.
All of that is rumbling forth from a man with a wrenching medical history, a man who last year was trying (and failing) to shatter car windows at Augusta National Golf Club after a missed Masters cut, a man who just on Thursday played a round that he said was “the worst I’ve hit it in a really long time.” He finished that day tied for 38th, a day after he declared the try-and-beat-me algorithm he detailed in 2019 still worked just fine.
Maybe he was right, though.
Sunday, of course, will have pitfalls. With its often firm and narrow fairways and a rough whose verdant hue makes it appear more appealing than it actually is, Oak Hill has been a devilish test since the first tee shot on Thursday. After two rounds, only nine players were below par. After three, that figure had shriveled to seven.
Conners held a lead that crawled as high as two strokes for much of Saturday, helped along by a front nine that passed without a bogey and made the possibility of his first major championship victory all the more real. Born in Ontario, not all that far from Oak Hill, he has been a favorite of the galleries, energized by an April victory at the Texas Open and confident in his putting, a welcome status for a player with a reputation for expert ball striking. But a double-bogey on the 16th hole sent him tumbling out of the top spot.
And Hovland again lurked at and around the top of the leaderboard throughout Saturday. He has been there before: Since the start of last year’s British Open, he has been in the top-10 at the end of every major tournament round. His afternoon darkened quickly, with bogeys on two of his first five holes, before a spree of three birdies left him poised to take the lead on the 14th hole. A sand wedge from about 75 yards brought him just inside the green’s edge, but he missed a birdie putt, settling for par. He missed another birdie try at No. 16.
Six pairings ahead, Hovland’s playing partner in last year’s final round at St. Andrews, Rory McIlroy, rediscovered some of the form that eluded him at the Masters and beyond. (Neither Hovland nor McIlroy won that Open, which Cameron Smith left with the claret jug.) McIlroy, often drenched, shot a 69 for the second consecutive day, taking him to one under and putting his ambition to win his first major since 2014 not fully out of reach.
“I probably hit it a little better off the tee today than I did the first couple of days, but I think this tournament and especially in these conditions and on this golf course, the nonphysical parts of the game, I think, are way more important this week than the physical parts of the game,” McIlroy said Saturday. “And I think I’ve done those well, and that’s the reason that I’m in a decent position.”
Koepka has not gone as long as McIlroy without a major victory, though he has been more battered with injuries these last few years. He began to gain ground early on Saturday, with birdies on the fourth and fifth holes. At No. 5, christened Little Poison, his 179-yard tee shot landed neatly on the green, setting up a putt for birdie. Unlike plenty of other past major champions, including McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Bryson DeChambeau, on Saturday, he avoided a bogey at No. 6, a havoc-inducing par-4 that has been playing closer to a 5.
A second shot at No. 13 landed in the rough, leaving Koepka 96 yards from the hole. His next stroke put him on the green, setting up a birdie putt from roughly 18 and a half feet. That putt, though, seemed puny at the 17th hole, when Koepka rolled one in from about 47 feet.
One of the central questions entering the tournament at Oak Hill was whether Koepka would much resemble the player who punished almost the entire field at Augusta. Playing in the LIV Golf league afterward, he had assembled a middling performance in Australia, a third-place finish in Singapore and a sixth-place outing last weekend in Oklahoma.
Before that tournament near Tulsa, he had mused over how he enjoyed the rigors of the majors: “the discipline, the mental grind that comes with it all, the focus.” In the hours after his letdown at Augusta, he said this past week, he did not sleep, that swaggering mind suddenly left looking for answers. The answers took shape within days.
He said on Saturday that he had learned that he should “never think the way I thought going into the final round.”
“I won’t do it again the rest of my career,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that you can’t go play bad — you can play good, you’ll play bad, but I’ll never have that mind-set or that won’t ever be the reason.”
A victory on Sunday would give him his fifth major tournament championship, and his first since that heady week at Bethpage in 2019.
Others are not so well positioned. Rahm, the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, shot two over on Saturday to bring his tournament score to six over. Justin Thomas, the winner of last year’s P.G.A. Championship, and Phil Mickelson, who has won the event twice, were five over on Saturday, moving their scores to 10 over.
“This golf course, with how difficult it is, it all starts by putting the ball in the fairway,” Rahm said. “It’s not an easy task. It’s very, very difficult. If you can do that, then you can maybe give yourself some chances and it all starts with that. A little bit of it is trying to keep the club head dry and manage it but again, there’s an element — there’s only so much you can control — so a bit of an element of luck.”
With the wet conditions forecast to clear, players expected the tees to be moved back for Sunday’s final round. The P.G.A. of America, the three-time major winner Padraig Harrington noted, is deeply skilled at setups.
“If they want us to go out there and shoot a good score, being 68, they’ll set it up that way,” he said. “They could if they want set it up for a low one for sure, but that wouldn’t suit the leader. The leaders always want a tough challenge on Sunday so they can play safe and the chasers get caught out.”
But the universe of chasers is a small one. Again, its members are pursuing Koepka.