Golf’s been called a game of great opportunity, as Zach Johnson called it when he spoke to the media in St. Andrews with the Claret Jug on the table next to him after securing the 2015 Open Championship.
For some like Brooks Koepka, that opportunity came on Sunday in the form of a seven-shot lead which he eventually cashed in for his fourth major in his last eight major starts in the 101st PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.
For others like Koepka’s playing partner, Harold Varner III, the opportunity on the line entering the final round Sunday in the final group and tied for second was the chance for a top four, which would bring an invite to his first Masters, among other big events.
But it was not to be for the 28-year-old.
“He knew about everything at stake, he knew that early in the week,” caddie Ray Farnell said Sunday night by phone.
Farnell said their game-plan for the final round after consecutive 3-under 67s in the second and third rounds was to just keep up what they were doing.
“The game-plan was working, it didn’t change much for us entering Sunday,” he said. “Obviously, I thought he’d be nervous and he probably was, but he settled in to a pretty quick start.”
Indeed, on the first tee Koepka hit first and found the left rough. Varner pounded a fade into the fairway and flipped a wedge tight for a birdie and a two-shot swing when Koepka bogeyed.
But the round went south for team Varner when he three-putted the par-3 third from 15 feet and compounded that by a mistake on four.
“He drove it terribly today which is unusual for him,” Farnell said. “He’s normally a great driver but he just struggled and only hit four or five fairways and it’s tough out there when you only hit that many fairways. You’re always having 10 and 15 footers for par and it just puts pressure on your putting.”
In the end, Varner signed for an 11-over 81 to tie for 36th.
A key mistake in the round that put pressure on Varner’s game, and which Farnell called the “turning point” was their second on the fourth out of the rough which went straight left and ended up getting lost in the trees.
“The lie didn’t seem that bad, and we only had about 60 or 70 yards to get it over the trap,” the 14-year veteran caddie said.
Farnell had handed Varner a gap wedge for that shot.
— PGA of America (@PGA) May 19, 2019
“He struggled with that shot at Shinnecock (2018 U.S. Open) too, in that long hay because his angle of attack is so shallow,” Farnell said. “He hit it a couple times in the rough and we talked about that shot and trying to just pitch it back into play.”
Perhaps Varner took too aggressive a swing and angle considering the circumstance?
“He wasn’t trying to bite off any more than he could chew or do anything crazy, he was just trying to pitch it out and the club just grabbed the grass and pulled it and hit the tree and went way left into the junk,” Farnell said. “I don’t know if many people on TV saw it hit the tree. It was super unlucky and got a bad break, too.”
The incredible bit of misfortune left Farnell thinking ‘what if?’
— PGA of America (@PGA) May 19, 2019
“If you don’t lose the first ball, and it comes out like the second one did, then you’ve got a chance for making a birdie and getting the round back to even par, which isn’t awful,” he said. “It’s one of those things where the bad bounce went against us and it just stopped momentum.”
Farnell and Varner walked off the fourth green after having made their second consecutive double bogey.
When your player’s gone through that kind of frustration, most caddies might need to give their guy a pep talk: Not true of Varner.
“He’s actually easy to keep in check because he’s always up and he doesn’t like negativity,” Farnell said. “He’s never down, never flat. It’s hard watching what unfolded unfold but you try to stay positive and keep it as light-hearted as it can be in that circumstance, and just try and get back to basics.
“The guy is in the last group of a major on a Sunday, he’s not doing a lot wrong to get in that position, but you don’t want to bend the wheel again, but you just want to make sure you make the adjustments well and don’t compound errors.”
Unfortunately the errors continued. As Varner made the turn in 6-over 41, he then walked down the 10th fairway — after a perfect drive in the fairway — he chatted it up with a local police officer assigned to the final group.
“That’s just Harold being Harold,” Farnell said. “He has an unbelievable perspective on life and golf. He turns around and looks at these police officers and says, ‘man your job is tough. I’m playing golf for a living.’ That’s just his perspective on life and that’s his biggest strength.”
Though the upbeat 28-year-old took the tough breaks of an 81 in the biggest round of his life in stride, Farnell warns that it doesn’t mean he wasn’t frustrated about it.
“Don’t get me wrong, he’s upset and disappointed,” Farnell said. “But he’ll take the positives, learn from it and move forward and continue to improve.
The next start is Memorial in a couple weeks, and Farnell doesn’t expect any negative effects to bother the 28-year-old.
“He’ll get back and go again, he’s resilient, he’ll get another shot at it and he’ll learn from (Sunday),” Farnell said. “You can’t keep someone like him down.”
The two friends got together after the round late in the evening for a couple beers.
Farnell, at 10:30 p.m., said he still hadn’t eaten yet, but was ready to collapse after some brews and a late night bite.
The New York crowds were loud and boisterous on Sunday afternoon and much of the cheering was against Koepka.
“You go to (New York) expecting different and they definitely were,” Farnell said. “You can hear them clear as day, but Brooks handled it like a champ. They got pretty personal towards Brooks and other golfers, other girlfriends. Some of it was pretty bad. It’s like they were trying to have a contest. Some of it was personal that I wouldn’t repeat.”
But even as Dustin Johnson made his run to get within one through 15 holes, Koepka had a huge drive in front of him on the 15th after making four straight bogeys on 11 through 14.
“They were chanting ‘DJ’,” Koepka said in his press conference later. “It was at a perfect time, I was thinking, ‘OK, alright. I’ve got everybody against me, let’s go’.”
Koepka clearly found a chip on the shoulder to motivate him, but it still seemed odd that so many cheered against a two-time U.S. Ryder Cup star who they’ll surely be loud as hell supporting when the Ryder Cup comes to Bethpage in 2024.
“Then the tee shot he hit on 15, after the crowd was just going crazy on 14,” Farnell said, “he hit one of the best drives I’ve ever seen under the circumstances.”
Congratulate the winners
On the 18th green Farnell told Koepka, “Well done,” when he greeted him and said to caddie Ricky Elliott, “Congrats, great effort and great fight.”