PGA Championship 2023: Inside the dizzying final holes of Brooks Koepka and Viktor Hovland's Sunday duel
Our writers Joel Beall and Shane Ryan followed Brooks Koepka and Viktor Hovland as they fought each other over the final stretch at Oak Hill. Here is what they saw.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — You have the myth of the Norseman—great colossus, descendant of the raiders, hard-bitten human product of river, fjord and sea—and you have the reality of Norway's Viktor Hovland, small and courageous but framed against the American beside him, Brooks Koepka, the bigger man, the greater champion. He will lose, you think, inevitably he will lose, but up to now he's endured in the final round of the 105th PGA Championship, latching like a terrier onto the ankle of the leader. Hoping as the afternoon wears on that pressure and luck will favor him at the critical hour.
Sixteenth hole. Beautiful cool day, western New York, sun on the wane. Still trailing by a shot, as he had hours earlier on the first tee. Marching uphill from the 15th green, the crowd's energy comes in waves, irrepressible, a roar followed by silence followed by another roar in the intolerable silence. Hovland has the honors, and his ball flares right. Not disastrously, you think, until marching in the cool Rochester air you see that it's clung far enough to the left side of a bunker that he'll be standing a bit close to the ball, and far above it. Koepka has gone right, too, but past him, invisible except for his head over the steep face of the bunker. That face is dangerous. Koepka lets him know it, too, glancing at Hovland’s ball like he’s walking past a gravestone. But how conservative can Hovland be, down one, with all this on the line? The choice is made quickly: 172 yards to the hole, 9-iron. There is no reason this can't be a par. And then he swings.
It starts and ends with Thomas Levet, the retired French golfer now in broadcasting, wearing a shirt whose orange is brighter than the tequila sunrise number Hovland wears. In the walkway between the ninth and 10th, Levet smiles, taps Viktor's chest, Viktor smiles back.
Through 63 holes the field of 156 was whittled down to two, Koepka and Hovland, separated by a mere shot with Scottie Scheffler their nearest competitor at four shots back. An hour earlier Koepka had threatened to put this tournament on ice, opening with three birdies in the first four holes and looking very much like the man who once called majors “easy.” Yet under Hovland’s youthful visage and affable demeanor he has withstood Koepka’s haymakers and answered with his own. Both players turned the front in 34, but it felt like Koepka could've, should've been up by more.
They advanced through the sludge brought by Saturday’s rain as they headed to the 10th tee, Koepka’s head up, shoulders back and chest out, talking strategy with his loop, Ricky Elliott, while careful not to scuff his sneaks in the crosswalk’s mud. Hovland, head down, impervious to the shouts about his wardrobe, raising his head only when he reached the tee. They waited for the fairway below to clear. Hovland took a deep breath and asked for a club, and though the words of his caddie Shay Knight could not be heard Viktor’s response was not in doubt:
“OK, got it,” Hovland said. “Here we go.” Two players, two men, together in isolation.
They are in concert, proven by how their tee shots on No. 10 land in a straight line, side by side on the fairway. But it's a pull-and-tug for Hovland; Koepka wants separation, and he gets it, an approach that is good which Koepka lets us know with a nod to Elliott. Koepka doesn’t get enough credit for what he can do with his irons. The big drives and clutch putting are more noticeable and elicit visceral reactions. But the approaches put that power to use and facilitate the short-game fireworks. Without the approaches, he is not Koepka, Destroyer of Worlds, but Koepka, professional golfer. The approach at No. 10 finished to eight feet and he cleaned up what remained with ease. Koepka, two up.
A sense of claustrophobia on the course, even without most of its old trees. Oak Hill should be open, but Hovland, seeking his first major, is surrounded by people, by cameras, by ropes. He is herded from one place to the next, constricted, and even above him the sky is not open, filled by the blimp and the army of drones, and below him even the thick mud from yesterday's rains seeks purchase. Within this movable prison, it feels courageous that at each lurch from Koepka, he's able to yank the leash, and how he does it again on the long par-3 11th. Koepka's tee shot is wayward and digs into the front bunker, but Hovland's swing looks more promising. The cheers come from the green first, and work down the ropes until they resonate with us at the tee; he's on.
Koepka is dead but he doesn’t know it. From 20 yards away fans examine a fried egg like a UFO has crashed. He has to go sideways; he must. But Koepka is not looking to his back or to his side but at the hole, and before a fan can finish asking, “He’s not seriously about to hit this is h…” Koepka chops his wedge like an axe and the ball defies physics and gravity, getting out of the sand and over the lip to somehow give Koepka a chance at par.
Each hole asks Hovland a question; each shot feels like the most important of his career. Can he make the big putt? He can't, not yet; the 27-footer comes to rest 10 inches from the cup. But in a game of avoiding mistakes, he has fought to a draw with a hole almost nobody birdies, and Koepka can't go up and down to keep pace. The margin is one.
Hovland sips from a tall bottle of light yellow liquid. Another fairway on 12, and he never reacts to anything anyone says. Koepka makes the fairway too, and his approach yields cheers from the green. Hovland now has to react; the harder role by far, but more devastating if you can pull it off, and he does, this tenacious fighter, sticking it to 11 feet and inviting dreamed-up narratives of what will come next.
For Koepka, the only thing that matters is the shot that’s ahead and nothing else. You can tell Koepka likes the look because he saunters around the hole. He is a confident man and gaining confidence by the hole, walking in his putt and releasing a fist pump before the ball drops.
Hovland’s putt looks good until it doesn’t. Reality trumps imagination once again. Two shots, the pull-and-tug goes on.
Thirteenth hole, Viktor trailing by two, every moment perilous now. The fidget of every cameraman, the shared looks between player and caddie, the silence of the massive crowd broken only by the engine of the hovering blimp—all of it dripping with significance.
Koepka has a weakness, and that weakness is impatience. He likes to move and fast, and when he doesn’t things can go south. Koepka fell to the psychological warfare of Phil Mickelson at Kiawah’s Ocean Course, Mickelson taking Koepka out of his game by bringing the pace to a crawl. Last month’s marathon Masters Sunday did not set any speed records; that Koepka’s four-shot lead finished in a four-shot deficit is not a coincidence. On the 12th he takes little time, barely getting his line and lashing away. The shot is right all the way and appears headed for trouble. As the ball’s destination is in doubt a cry of “GET IN THE WATER” emits from the left of the tee. The ball doesn’t listen, landing in the right rough. Elliott finds the perpetrator and stares him down. Koepka refuses to turn, his glance remains forward. Hovland’s drive goes left and stays there and all holler “FORE!” The ball stays in play. Both are forced to lay up, each with 100 and change left.
As they go up the hill a security guard joins and frantically waves them ahead, and we see why: Fans have broken contain, somehow mistaking the 13th fairway at the PGA Championship for the 18th green at the Open. They are sprinting up the fairway, chasing Koepka and Hovland, their purpose unclear, deciding to ride their excitement and ask questions later. Security is too dumbfounded to act, or perhaps knowing there was nothing they could do. Viktor marches past fans holding the Norwegian flag and drops his third 10 feet past the hole while Koepka comes up well short. Another hole, another question, and this time Hovland has an answer, dropping the uphill putt for birdie. He never smiles once, and he never grimaces or frowns, not even when Koepka survives the two-shot swing with a gutty downhill par.
The unspoken undercurrent begins to swell. Koepka, the game’s most renowned closer, has been unable to close for some time. If there was any interval for those demons to appear, it was at the 14th, the group camped on the box waiting for the drivable green to clear. Five minutes is forever in golf, and that’s what Koepka had to endure, five minutes of waiting as the crowd made its voice known they were pulling for his opponent.
“Keep cashing that Saudi money, Brooks!”
“Viktor, do it for the game!”
“We know you’re going to choke, we’ve all seen you do it!”
Koepka’s opponent was no longer Hovland or Oak Hill. He now had to win the Wanamaker in front of a gallery that didn’t want to see him do it. He responded with vigor, a 320-yard drive coming to rest 25 feet from the hole.
Hovland’s drive isn’t as good, coming up short and right of the green. They don’t make it far up the hole when the crowd rushes the fairway again. The marshals have lost control and look on in dazed resignation, abhorred by the behavior yet amazed at what they see before them. The police step in, escorting the majority of those in attendance to the right of the hole. "Majority” is the operative word, and a number of ticket holders have snuck to the green and are standing on the 15th tee. Augusta National, this is not.
Hovland’s new short game is on display, wedging out from the thick grass below the hole to three feet, drains the birdie. For a moment, he has tied the lead, but Koepka follows with a sensible lag and taps in after him, still tethered to his pursuer but still, crucially, ahead.
Meanwhile, up ahead, Scottie Scheffler is surging. There are rumors, roars; cell phones barely work, radios cackle in and out, word trickles in slowly. Somewhere, Michael Block has hit a hole-in-one. One last par 3 remains to the leaders before the march home, and each tee shot yields polite applause. Behind the green, rows of fans, rows of pavilions, buzzing from a long wait, buzzing from alcohol, but respectful in the face of this great clash, silent when it's required.
Both shots at the par-3 15th are safely on the left side of the green. A fan yells out, “Hey Brooks, everyone has missed that putt low!” Koepka doesn’t heed the advice. Neither does Hovland. One par, two pars. Where they started, they remain; a single shot. They climb the hill, and now they head for home.
There is a swing, but there is not a ball. Not visible, anyway, to the fans lined down each side of the fairway. Something has happened, something has gone wrong. Hovland’s arms are on his head, in a pose the kids call “Surrender Cobra.” He is indignant. He is in disgust. He knows he just did the thing he could not do.
Viktor won't forget, ever, the ball that will not rise, the ball that embeds into the thick, cruel grass of the steep redesigned face of the Oak Hill bunker. He may pay for years, in his head, but now the universe makes him pay with time; an excruciating wait as the rules official stares over the situation, as clubs are laid horizontally, as one and then a second drop vanishes into the thick grass. Beyond him, on the green, a willow tree moves with the wind, waiting for the player who wanted to stand by its side far sooner.
This is the great energy release, the great deflation, the moment when the tournament is lost rather than won.
What can we say about what comes next? Hovland has stumbled, all Koepka needs to do is remain upright. The moment called for a safe approach, one that was short and uphill and bestowed no worse than a two-putt. Three holes remain but Koepka decides to close it here, his shot from the rough flying high and hard and true, landing at the front of the green and rolling … and rolling … and rolling just past the hole. He cleans up what remains with an ease you’re not supposed to have at a moment like that. He makes 3, Hovland makes 6, and Koepka walks with a stride that cannot be bought but earned.
Kevin C. Cox
Viktor's face is rigid, expressionless, stuck in the somber mask that precedes mourning. He is heartbroken, but he's not yet allowed to show it. The wind blows, the crowd cheers, and he marches forward.
Hovland can't smile when he makes a last birdie on 18, a sight that might have been lovely or even triumphant under different circumstances, but now only ties him for second and puts a strange punctuation mark on his journey. When the great cheers come for the champion, he's impossibly lonely, uncounseled by the hug of his caddie, by the embrace of Levet, the man who last made contact at the hopeful turn and stops him again on the path to scoring, a reminder of when the conclusion was still a mystery.
In another moment or two, he will it in a chair and fill out his scorecard, and he will stand in front of a CBS screen beside Dottie Pepper, staring off into the sky just above one of the many white tents, waiting for the radio whispers in her ear to say it's time for the loser's interview.
"Are we making any progress?" he'll ask her, not unkindly, but desperate for an exit.
But now, on the walk from 18, he receives two more embraces, rounds a corner, and finds himself in a parking lot where nobody expects him, where nobody shouts his name, where nobody knows him until he's passed.
And in this noiseless place, he is completely, astoundingly alone.
Koepka inspects the leaderboard and the leaderboard winks back. There was a catcall of “SELLOUT” on the 17th green, but the crowd engulfing the 18th is respectful and emphatic, showering the praise that such a performance deserves. His birdie try is barely off the face before a smile crosses Koepka’s face, knowing it has no chance to go in but recognizing that’s what the situation called for.
In the minutes that follow, there will be a surge from friends and family, of businessmen and coaches, of fellow players and officials. He will pose for photos, many with people he has never met but that are required of a champion. He will speak with poise and conviction, he will attempt to be vulnerable, he will assert there’s no reason to think this day was not an aberration but what he now expects. There are varying degrees of truth in each and all.
What is incontrovertible is the emotion laid naked on the 18th green. That smile, one that he would flash for hours after and likely for days that follow turned into something else as he tapped in for 4. As the ball went down Koepka’s arms went up, embracing Elliott in a manner that can only be measured in the pain and agony of wondering if this moment that was once routine would ever return.