At the 18 3M Championships held on the Champions Tour, the question asked annually was “Just how low can the players go?” on the TPC Twin Cities’ forgiving fairways and big greens.
The world’s top-ranked player, Brooks Koepka, arrives for the PGA Tour’s first 3M Open wondering optimistically just how difficult it might play Thursday in its opening round.
Koepka called himself “fried” after he finished 57th at the Travelers two weeks ago, his third consecutive week out on tour that included a second-place finish in last month’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He rested last week but honored a commitment he made last winter with Florida neighbor and 3M Open executive director Hollis Cavner to play this week.
He did so because Cavner promised a course setup big and bold, just like Koepka’s game.
He has won six PGA Tour events since he turned pro 2012 — four of them major championships against the game’s deepest fields and on its toughest tests.
That’s twice as many majors as regular tour events and four of the past nine majors, dating to the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin.
“Brooks loves hard,” Cavner said. “He wants it hard.”
In Koepka’s world, difficult is good, and the more demanding a course, the better. After he played the front nine early Wednesday morning, he approved architectural changes 1996 British Open champion Tom Lehman directed last fall to make TPC Twin Cities longer, narrower and, yes, harder.
“I think it suits me quite well,” Koepka said. “It’s a longer golf course.”
Whenever they’d see each other this spring and summer, Koepka asked Cavner about a remade layout that now is par 71 and can stretch toward 7,500 yards.
“Yardage does not come into his vocabulary,” Cavner said. “He couldn’t care if it’s 7,800 yards.”
Most other players do care, but length is Koepka’s friend. The TPC Twin Cities yardage allows Koepka to use his superlative power — and driver — on several holes.
“He told me it was a big hitter’s course, and that’s what I like,” Koepka said.
His winning history shows he thrives when others don’t go low. He has made 14 of 15 cuts this season, won twice and finished tied for second, first and second in the three major championships so far.
“I’m not the best when it comes to shootouts,” Koepka said. “If it’s going to be 25, 26 under par, I’m a little better when the scores are [not as low].”
He finished well off the lead this season in two World Golf Championships, was 50th at June’s Canadian Open and missed the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.
When asked why Koepka has won twice as many majors as weekly tour events, five-time major winner Phil Mickelson said, “I don’t have an answer for you. But his stretch in the majors is very, very impressive.”
Koepka explained why he believes it’s easier to win majors than weekly tour events before he went out and won his fifth major in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in New York in May.
This is his math: Out of a 156-man field, he’s flat-out better than at least half of them. There’s roughly another 45 after that who won’t play well that week. The pressure will get to some — or many — of the remaining 35. That leaves a relatively small number he must beat.
“One of the big things I’ve learned over the last few years is you don’t need to try to go win it,” Koepka said about majors. “Just hang around. If you hang around, good things are going to happen.”
But put him in a field where his competitors make birdies left and right and Koepka can struggle to control his aggressive nature when he feels he must birdie every hole.
“I’ve always kind of been that way,” he said. “If I get too aggressive, it can backfire. You make a bogey in a shootout, you’re going backward very quickly. You drop two shots and maybe push a little harder on the next few holes and make a mistake and you start falling back.”
If birdies are hard to come by and par is a good score, he said he plays with more discipline.
“I understand the center of the greens are my friends,” Koepka said. “If I get a hard hole, just put it on the green, two-putt and walk away with par. I’m happy. I know I haven’t lost anything. I’ve maybe gained a half shot on the field. It’s a little easier that way.”
The last golfer to win majors at the kind of pace Koepka has these past two years is a fellow named Tiger Woods, who credits Koepka with doing all the “little things” that win majors.
“If you watch his rounds, he misses the ball in the correct spots, leaves himself easier up-and-downs,” Woods said at Pebble Beach last month. “He’s doing all the little things that add up over 72 holes. We all have to figure out our own way. He’s figured out what he is and what approach works for him.”
Now Koepka must figure out a TPC Twin Cities course that he called “really good” and suited to his game. PGA Tour Champions player David Frost won the 2010 3M Championship at 25 under par.
Koepka on Wednesday predicted a winning score of perhaps 12 to 15 under, which would favor him.
“I can hit driver and cut some corners,” he said. “I think that will be a big advantage this week.”