AUGUSTA, Ga. — Brooks Koepka stood on the first tee Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club, both a 3-wood and a lead before the final round of the Masters in his hands. He fidgeted and fumbled with them both. When the green-jacketed starter finally uttered the words that would begin Koepka’s coronation — “Fore, please. Now driving: Brooks Koepka.” — he unleashed that 3-wood so far left that it nearly bisected the fairway — the ninth fairway.
Everyone wants to lead the Masters. But does everyone want to lead it Saturday night? Magnolia Lane has always been lined by, well, magnolias. But there’s blood there, too — Ken Venturi’s from 1956, Greg Norman’s from 1996, Rory McIlroy’s from 2011.
And now Koepka’s because he rose Sunday morning with a four-shot lead at this rain-addled Masters and some 30 holes later departed in the low light with a four-shot loss to Jon Rahm, the great Spaniard who finished at 12-under-par 276.
Rahm is such a worthy champion, and he earned this victory by closing with a 69, handling himself in a way Koepka could not. They would present as opposites — Rahm famously fiery, Koepka stoic to the point of apathy. But when Koepka had the lead, he wobbled. When Rahm seized it, he surged.
“What is going on on the outside is not always a reflection of what’s going on on the inside,” Rahm said. “I was calm. I never really got frustrated.”
“There’s tension out there,” Rahm said.
It’s undeniable. Could there be a straight line drawn between the stresses and strains of leading the final round of the Masters and Koepka’s inability to maintain his level of play from the first three days? All we have are the results.
“Obviously, it’s super disappointing, right?” Koepka said. “Didn’t play good enough to win.”
Much could be made of Koepka’s departure for the Saudi-funded LIV Golf series and Rahm’s allegiance to the PGA Tour, and the crowd surely backed the 28-year-old from Spain in a way it didn’t — perhaps couldn’t? — support the 32-year-old Floridian. But what happened here had nothing to do with golf allegiances and everything to do with a golf truism: It can be difficult, if not debilitating, to play with a lead, especially in the crucible of major championships — the only events Koepka says truly matter to him.
Self-confidence and self-doubt would seem to be opposites, but they so often sleep in adjacent rooms. That’s how Koepka can play the first 42 holes of this tournament — as many as he could complete before Sunday because of the dodgy weather Friday and Saturday — with just one bogey. He was the best version of his struttin’-and-puttin’ self, the absolute cock of the walk.
But he began play in the suspended third round Sunday morning by missing a par putt, which became the first of nine bogeys he made over his final 30 holes.
He’s the very same player with the very same skills in the very same body. And yet quite literally overnight, he was transformed. By the time he and Rahm completed the sixth hole of the final round, Koepka had wrapped up the lead in a box, tied it with a bow and handed it over to the Spaniard, never to regain it.
“Didn’t feel like I did too much wrong,” Koepka said, “but that’s how golf goes sometimes.”
That’s how it went Sunday, in a massive moment that included so much golf. When he completed the back nine of the third round in the morning with two bogeys and no birdies, it was pointed out to Koepka that his lead, headed into the final 18, had been halved.
“Halved?” Koepka protested. “What do you mean, ‘halved’? I started yesterday at two. I’m just spitting facts to you.”
Nervous? Who’s nervous? Let’s spit some facts back.
Koepka woke up Sunday with that four-shot lead over Rahm. By the time he completed the final 11-plus holes of his third round, he had fallen from 13 to 11 under, while Rahm remained at 9 under. Yeah, Koepka had a two-shot lead after the completion of the second round Saturday and maintained it going to the final 18. But this weather-wacky tournament has been defined by days, not rounds. Just spittin’ facts.
See the semantics Koepka found necessary to try to maintain the right head space with the lead?
“I’m fine with two,” Koepka said.
He decidedly was not. His departure for LIV raised questions about whether he could compete in the tournaments he values above all others, the majors. Those seem answered.
“I think I proved it this week, no?” Koepka said. “I’ve known this for a while. Led for three rounds. Just didn’t do it for the last day.”
This is hard. In these scenarios, in which leads are frittered away, think to championships won by competitors who held the advantage for mere moments, not moons. Danny Willett trailed Jordan Spieth by five shots with nine to play at this tournament in 2016. Spieth put two in the water at 12. When Willett took the lead with a birdie at 14, he needed only to hold the lead for four holes — not four days.
“When you’re that far back,” Spieth said Sunday, when he began the final round 10 behind Koepka, “you have to have everything go right.”
But because that’s the case, why not swing free and easy? Spieth did it Sunday, surging with a final-round 66 that might have been a shot or two better had he not flailed at his final tee shot, leading to a closing bogey. His playing partner was Phil Mickelson, the three-time Masters champ who has been in horrible form since he joined LIV Golf.
“When I’ve been competing, I have not been staying present,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t been letting it happen, kind of forcing it. I just haven’t been scoring the way I know I can.”
When he was 10 back to start the final round at his favorite place on the planet to compete, well, lo and behold, he scored the way he knew he could, firing a closing 65 that got him to 8 under for the tournament — and made him the clubhouse leader at a point when Rahm was just two shots ahead, with much golf to play.
Rahm was up to the task, playing bogey-free golf over the final nine.
No matter what you think of LIV and the people who finance it (pssssst, it’s a carnival and they’re monsters), golf’s reality is that points in the Official World Golf Ranking aren’t granted in its events, and rankings provide the most reliable way into major championships. Koepka is in for the Masters next year because he finished in the top 12 on Sunday, earning an invitation.
But had he won, he would return here indefinitely. That’s an added layer to this: A man who wants nothing but to win more majors has no guaranteed path to gain entry into those events. Sunday would have provided one.
Instead, it served up the opposite. It was the day Koepka became the latest character to have his spirit rattled at Augusta National. He may get another chance, maybe even several, to stand on the first tee on Sunday with a lead in the Masters. If and when he does, he will know exactly how paralyzing that can be.