USGA CHAMPIONS
Koepka on Top of the World After Win in Korea October 22, 2018 | Liberty Corner, N.J. By David Shefter, USGA

The sky seems limitless for two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka after taking the No. 1 world ranking on Sunday. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

Considering the injury-interrupted beginning to his season, Brooks Koepka probably couldn’t have predicted how well his year would pan out.

Sidelined four months with a wrist injury that kept him out of the Masters, the 28-year-old Floridian overcame his early-season adversity to successfully defend his U.S. Open title at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in June. Two months later, he claimed his third major championship by holding off 14-time major champion Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship.

Those two victories led to him being named PGA Tour Player of the Year, an honor that came a week before another career-defining moment for the long-hitting Koepka.

On Sunday in the Republic of Korea, Koepka vaulted to the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) with his four-stroke victory at the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges. Koepka, who has three victories in 11 starts in 2018, joined 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and Justin Thomas as the third first-timer to reach the top spot in the OWGR this year. It’s the first time that has happened since 1997, when two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, Tom Lehman and Woods each rose to No. 1.

“To be No. 1 is something I’ve dreamed of as a kid,” said Koepka, who displaced good friend and 2016 U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson. “I don’t think this one is going to sink in.”

Just like he did down the stretch at Shinnecock Hills when he held off Johnson – and during the final round of the PGA at Bellerive against Woods and Adam Scott – Koepka seemed impervious to the pressure. despite He repelled a late push by Gary Woodland, who started the day five behind but pulled even with Koepka after making six birdies in a seven-hole stretch. 

Even as Woodland kept applying the pressure, Koepka answered with birdies on 15 and 16, the latter coming on a remarkable chip-in from 70 feet. Then on 18, Koepka punctuated his second-nine 29 – and final-round 64 – with a 25-foot eagle.

“Brooks with the lead, not much fazes him,” said Woodland.

Koepka now owns 12 worldwide victories, four of which came early in his career on the European Challenge Tour. He is scheduled to play on the final stop of the PGA Tour’s Asian fall swing this week, the WGC-HSBC Champions in the People’s Republic of China. 

“I'm so excited right now, you have no idea,” said Koepka. “I can't wait to go play again.”

Kang Secures Second Win

Koepka wasn’t the only USGA champion to produce a win in Asia over the weekend. Two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Danielle Kang celebrated her 26th birthday by earning her second career LPGA Tour victory by holding off a bevy of players at the Buick LPGA Shanghai in China. The native Californian carded a 3-under 69 in Sunday’s final round for a two-stroke triumph over seven players, including reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion Ariya Jutanugarn and 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Lydia Ko.

“I hope I win more,” said Kang, whose first pro victory was the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. “I did the best I can. I’m going to keep working hard and keep giving myself chances and keep putting myself in contention. I’ll win more. I’ll play better.”

Ko, seeking her second victory of 2018 and first since April when she defeated 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion Minjee Lee in a playoff in the LPGA Mediheal Championship, closed with the day’s best round, a 6-under 66.

Jutanugarn, meanwhile, nearly regained the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Women’s Rankings, but her tie for second kept her 0.078 points behind 2017 U.S. Women’s Open champion Sung Hyun Park. Jutanugarn, the 2018 money leader who was looking for her fourth victory of the year, needed a win or a solo second to surpass Park. Her 15th top-10 finish of the season still kept Jutanugarn ahead in the Player of the Year race.

Noh Honored

After winning the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship in July during a stretch in which she also claimed the Girls Junior PGA Championship and Canadian Women’s Amateur titles, Yealimi Noh was named the American Junior Golf Association’s Player of the Year on Monday. Noh, 17, of Concord, Calif., defeated Alexa Pano, 4 and 3, in the 36-hole final at Poppy Hills Golf Course on what was believed to be the longest day in USGA amateur championship history. Due to nearly 16 hours of fog delays during the week, the semifinals and 36-hole championship match were played on the same day.

“I’m so honored to be receiving this incredible award,” said Noh, who also was named a Rolex Junior All-American for a fourth consecutive year. “It truly is one of my biggest accomplishments. This really means a lot to me.”

Erica Shepherd, 17, of Greenwood, Ind., the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion, was named a first-team All-American, along with 2018 USA Curtis Cup competitor Lucy Li, who earned medalist honors in the 2018 U.S. Girls’ Junior and U.S. Women’s Amateur championships.

On the boys’ side, Akshay Bhatia, 16, of Wake Forest, N.C., the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up, was chosen the player of the year, while Junior Amateur champion Michael Thorbjornsen, 16, of Wellesley, Mass., was a first-time All-American.

Change of Heart

Reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Kevin O’Connell withdrew from the first stage of European Tour Q-School in France a few days after winning the championship at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club. O’Connell, 30, of Cary, N.C., had entered Q-School prior to competing in this year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 2011, O’Connell made three unsuccessful attempts to get his PGA Tour/Web.com Tour card via Q-School. He regained his amateur status in 2015 and worked in a wealth management firm and for a golf equipment company as a representative before resigning in March to focus on his golf game.

With a wealth of 2019 exemptions, including the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links, the Masters, and the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, O’Connell chose not to pursue a European Tour card and will remain an amateur. His U.S. Mid-Amateur victory also is likely to bring invitations to several other prestigious competitions such as the Western Amateur, North & South Amateur, Crump Cup, Coleman Invitational and Northeast Amateur.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.