HARTFORD, Conn. – Despite bogeying the last three holes Sunday, Rob Labritz saluted and then blew kisses to a rowdy crowd as he walked off the 18th green at wind-swept Bethpage State Park Black Course after fulfilling a lifetime dream in the 101st PGA Championship in Farmingdale, N.Y.
Labritz, a Hartford native and Central Connecticut State University grad, shot a closing, 2-over-par 72 for a 72-hole total of 10-over 290 that enabled him to finish as the low club professional in his sixth PGA Championship start and receive a cherished crystal cup on the 18th green from Suzy Whaley of Cromwell, the first female president of the PGA of America.
Labritz, the Director of Golf at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills, N.Y., less than an hour from Bethpage, birdied two of the first four holes to take a lead that he never relinquished among the three club pros who made the cut, the most to reach the weekend since the PGA of America pared the number of local pros in the field from 35 to 20, beginning in 2006. Labritz, a father of two who turns 48 on May 31, had three birdies and five bogeys to finish five strokes ahead of Ryan Vermeer, the 2018 PGA Professional Championship winner and Director of Instruction at Happy Hollow Club in Omaha, Neb. (79). Marty Jertson, the Vice President of Fitting and Performance for PING from Phoenix, Ariz., also shot 79 to finish last among the 82 players to make the cut at 299.
The birth of his children was among Labritz’s life highlights, but playing 72 holes in a major championship not far from where he lives and works had special meaning.
“An incredible week,” said Labritz, who won the New York State Open at Bethpage Black in 2008, 2011 and 2016 and once shot 65 in his previous 69 rounds there. “I was totally relaxed. I felt in my comfort zone. I felt good. I wasn’t nervous. Wasn’t shaking. I just felt great out there.”
Especially after accomplishing a much-desired goal on a familiar course in the Metropolitan (N.Y.) Section PGA that he represented.
“When it was announced a few years that the PGA was here, my caddie said, ‘You have to make it here,’ ” Labritz said. “I went to my wife and said one thing I want to do is play at Bethpage in a major championship, and she said, ‘Of course you do because you’ve won many State Opens there.’ We made it our point during the winter, every other week I would travel to Florida and work out at the PGA village, hitting golf balls, playing in tournament, playing the Winter Series.
“I have a few students down there that I teach, so I come down and would wrap in some coaching with some playing. I didn’t see my family much this winter. It was a big sacrifice because we wanted to make sure my game was sharp enough to compete. … Bethpage is a hard test, and if you’re nice to her and if you take care of her, she will treat you nicely. If you’re not so nice and you hit it off-line, and you swear at her and get mad at her, she’s going to beat you up, and you’ve got to be patient out there. That’s all you have to do, try to hit it in the fairway. If you get in the fairway, you have an opportunity to tnheyget on the green close. If you don’t hit the fairway, you don’t have that opportunity.”
Labritz was delighted to have any kind of opportunity in front of many family and friends.
“My club is very easy with me,” Labritz said. “They know how important playing good golf is. They know how it helps my teaching ability. They know that it helps me as a person. I’m fulfilled when I play good golf, and I’m fulfilled when I get a chance to work on my game every day. It makes me who I am, is a big part of me, and they know that. They support me 100 percent, and that’s why I found a home there. I think half of my ashes will probably be other there.”
Will any be spread on Bethpage Black?
“I do,” Labritz said. “This place is a special place for me. Might take a quarter of them and maybe to go Shinnecock, too.”
Shinnecock is also on Long Island, about 60 minutes from Bethpage Black and the site of other Labritz successes and where Koepka won the U.S. Open last summer.
Labritz was the first player to tee off on the first hole in the first round on Thursday at 6:45 a.m. and needed a 69 in the second round to make a PGA Championship cut for the second time at 144. He also made the cut in 2010, when he was the only club pro to play the final 36 holes and tied for 68th at the Straits Course of the Whistling Straits complex in Haven, Wisc.
But this time was extra special for Labritz, who was followed by as many 100 members from GlenArbor who are wearing t-shirts with “Rob’s Mob” on the back. It wasn’t Labritz’s first notable showing at Bethpage Black, but this was a major championship so close to home, so making the cut had him walking on air throughout the weekend.
“You see this smile?” Labritz said. “I was reflecting with my wife (Saturday) morning, we were talking a little bit, and she just said, ‘You know, we’ve been prepping for this for a while.’ I told you guys, we’ve been prepping for this for the last year or so, and I’m starting to really feel comfortable out there. I’m going to continue to prep and continue to work and continue to be the best PGA pro that I can b
Since 2013, Labritz has carried in his yardage book 10 words of inspiration from one of his club members, the late Robbie Risman, who died in an automobile accident several years ago. It says, “Keep grinding always, but look around and enjoy the ride.” He certainly enjoyed this ride after qualifying for the year’s second major by finishing eighth in the PGA Professional Championship two weeks ago at Belfair in Bluffton, S.C.
“I just love it. I love getting the crowd behind everything here,” said Labritz, who had 242 text messages by Saturday night. “I love interacting with them. I’m a PGA pro. I’m not a PGA Tour. So any bit that I can do to make everybody’s day, make them have a good time out here and get the crowd going, that’s what I am all about.”
Labritz finished in a tie for 60th place, 18 strokes behind winner Brooks Koepka, who completed a record-setting week with his fourth major victory in his last eight starts in 23 months. Koepka, who missed the 2018 Masters with a wrist injury that kept him from playing or practicing for several months, survived four consecutive bogeys on the back nine in gusting 20-30 mph winds to close with 74 for an 8-under 272, two better than close friend and workout partner Dustin Johnson.
“This was definitely my most satisfying (major) victory because it was so hard out there, and I’ve never been more excited than I was when I finished,” Koepka said after being handed the Wanamaker Trophy by Whaley. “But I’m just glad we didn’t have any more holes to play. I thought I hit the ball pretty good, but I didn’t put the ball in play much, so you’re going to have problems in such brutal conditions.
“I wasn’t nervous, just in shock when I made the four bogeys in a row. I don’t know the last time that I did that, so it was a real test and I worked my tail off to make pars. It was a very, very stressful round of golf, and DJ did a tremendous job of putting pressure on me as I knew he would. I didn’t have my best, but I was able to refocus, which was so satisfying. I really had to grind it out, but I’m just glad to have the trophy back in my hands.”
Koepka, who beat Tiger Woods by two strokes last year at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, became the first to win back-to-back major titles simultaneously despite shooting the highest final round by a champion since Vijay Singh won a playoff in 2004 at Whistling Straits. Koepka, the man that Labritz called “Robocop right now” will shoot for a third consecutive U.S. Open title June 13-16 at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California before heading to Connecticut to play in the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
Koepka joined Bobby Nichols (1964), Jack Nicklaus (1971), Ray Floyd (1982) and Hal Sutton (1983) as the only wire-to-wire winners, with no ties, in PGA Championship history. The last player to win a major wire-to-wire was 2017 Travelers Championship titlist Jason Spieth in the 2015 Masters. Spieth, who shared second place after 36 holes, shot 71 to finish in a tie for third with Patrick Cantlay (71) and Matt Wallace (72) in his quest to become the sixth player to achieve the career Grand Slam. Spieth didn’t garner that goal, but he did have his first Top-20 finish in 2019 (he tied for 21st in the Masters) and his first Top 10 since he tied for ninth in the 2018 British Open.
Koepka, who turned 29 on May 3, regained No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking after his sixth PGA Tour victory, fourth in a major. The other majors wins came in the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Open and the 2018 PGA Championship. It was his second victory and fifth Top-10 finish in 11 starts in the 2018-19 season, the other win coming in the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges. And it enabled Koepka to join Woods, Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson, Peter Thomson and Ralph Guldahl to win majors in three straight years since the Masters began in 1934. And no one has won the U.S. Open three years in a row since Willie Anderson in 1905.
But this title certainly didn’t come easy.
Koepka’s seven-stroke lead entering the round was the largest after 54 holes in tournament history by two and tied for sixth all-time in all major championships. It was the 12th time in the last 34 rounds at a major that he was the leader or co-leader, with Spieth and Kevin Kisner next with six.
Koepka’s sizable lead was quickly sliced as he bogeyed the first hole after driving into the rough while playing partner Harold Varner III made a 6-foot birdie putt to get to 6 under. But Varner three-putted No. 3 for double-bogey 5 and lost a ball on No. 4 on the way to a double-bogey 7 and never challenged again while shooting 81 to finish in a tie for 36th at 286.
Johnson, the No. 1-ranked player in the world and seeking a second major win, got within five when he birdied the par-5 fourth hole, but Koepka matched that with a two-putt birdie. Johnson then birdied Nos. 7 and 9 to get within four, but he bogeyed the 11th as Koepka was nearly holed his 5-iron approach at the difficult 10th hole and suddenly the difference was back to six.
But a coronation became something else over the next hour. Errant drives at the 11th, 12th and 13th holes led to bogeys for Koepka, his first such stretch since August 2018, sliced his lead to three and caused the raucous crowd to start chanting, “DJ, DJ, DJ” in hopes of a comeback that might extend the day to a playoff.
“How could you not (hear) the ‘DJ’ chants,” Koepka said. “I heard everything and was kind of pissed.”
When Johnson made a 12-foot putt for his fourth straight birdie at the difficult 15th hole, Koepka’s lead was down to two. And it was only one when Koepka hit his tee shot through the swirling winds and over the green, leading to a fourth consecutive bogey at the par-3 14th hole.
But after a perfect drive at No. 16, Johnson hit his approach shot over the green and missed an 8-foot par putt to fall two back. And Koepka’s lead was three after Johnson hit his tee shot on the 206-yard 17th hole over the green into heavy rough and failed to make a 12-foot putt to save par. Johnson’s woes continued at No. 18, where he hit his drive into a fairway bunker and then hooked his approach far left of the green. But he hit a deft chip and made a 6-foot par putt for 69 to be the only player to shoot all four rounds in the 60s.
It also got Johnson within two strokes when Koepka three-putted the 17th hole for the second straight day for a bogey 4. And there was suspense to the end when Koepka hooked his drive into the fescue on the edge of a bunker and had to pitch his second shot into the fairway. He then hit a 68-yard wedge shot to 6 feet and made the putt to finish off his historic run.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s second-place finish made him the eighth player to notch the “Runner-up Slam.” He tied for second in the Masters behind Woods.
“The course played extremely difficult, and I hit the ball pretty good to have been tied with Brooks going into Sunday,” said Johnson, who was replaced at No. 1 by his buddy. “I knew I had to do something on the three holes to put some pressure on Brooks, and I can’t believe my ball went over the green on 16 and 17. But I’m very pleased with the way I played. I feel I’ve played well all year but didn’t make enough putts the first three days to be close to the lead.”
And the fans?
“They were pulling for me,” Johnson said with a smile. “They were great. It was a lot of fun. You know, it’s why we play golf, is to be in these kinds of situations. And you know, for me, yeah, I had a great time out there today, even in these tough conditions. I gave it a good shot.”
Koepka played in Africa and went through the Challenge Tour in Europe before qualifying for the PGA Tour. He played in his seventh PGA Championship, and his top finishes are the two wins, a tie for fourth in 2016 and tie for fifth in 2015. He holds a share of the PGA’s 18-hole scoring record (63) and owns the 36-hole (128, a record in any major championship) and 72-hole (264) records. He’s the seventh player (Woods did it twice) to successfully defend his PGA title since Woods in 2007 and is the first repeat winner in both the PGA and U.S. Open.
Koepka is the 29th player to win four or more majors and the first to reach that mark since Rory McIlroy at the 2014 PGA Championship. He’s also the seventh player to win multiple titles at both the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open, joining Nicklaus, Woods, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino.
The most exciting moment of the day came when Lucas Bjerregaard one-hopped a 6-iron shot into the cup for a hole-in-one at the 17th, sending a boisterous crowd encircling the green into a frenzy. Moments later, playing partner Lucas Glover, who won the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, holed a 60-foot shot from the back bunker for 2, giving the pair a combined par 3 on the hole and a memorable high-five celebration. Bjerregaard then bogeyed No. 18 for 73-283 and a tie for[BB1] 16th, which Glover matched when he closed with par for 73.
The 2020 PGA Championship will be played May 14-17 at another public golf course, Harding Park Golf Club in San Francisco. Whaley’s two-year term as president ends next year, and the PGA of America’s annual meeting will be in Hartford at the Connecticut Convention Center.
TWO MAJOR STATE EVENTS THIS WEEK
There will be two major Connecticut tournaments on Monday and Tuesday. Forty-five pros will compete in the Connecticut Section PGA Spring Stroke Play Championship at GreenHorse CC in Hampden, Mass., where the low Class A finisher qualifies for the Travelers Championship. Meanwhile, 84 players will start in the Connecticut State Golf Association Palmer Cup at the Country Club of Waterbury. Brian Ahern of Wampanoag CC in West Hartford will not defend because of an injury. … The Connecticut Section PGA’s Walter Lowell PGA Tournament is May 28 at Twin Hills CC in East Longmeadow, Mass. In a pre-tournament ceremony, Fairview Farm Golf Course in Harwinton will receive the 2019 Walter Lowell Public Golf Course Distinguished Service Award. Since 2001, the award has honored a public golf course in the Section in recognition of their dedication to the promotion of the game of golf. The award was inaugurated in honor of Canton Golf Course owned by the Lowell family for the standards set towards a public course’s responsibility to its community to provide playing opportunities for all those who want to play and learn the game. Lowell is an honorary life president of the Connecticut Section PGA who was the PGA of America Professional of the Year in 1978, when women first became members of the organization thanks largely to the efforts of Lowell, who initiated the idea.