News & Opinion

Koepka shows he’s still a major force

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Brooks Koepka is a gamer. In golf speak, that means he really can golf his ball.

In the 101st PGA Championship, Koepka shot a course-record 7-under 63 on Thursday at Bethpage State Park's Black Course for a one-stroke lead over former U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee (scores).

None of this should be a surprise. Koepka, the defending PGA champion, predicted Tuesday here that if he did what he was supposed to do this week, then he would be tough to beat and would retain the Wanamaker Trophy.

Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka needs only 25 putts in a 7-under 63 to grab the 1st-round lead at the PGA Championship.

Well, he didn’t do exactly what he was supposed to do – mainly, take care of the two par 5s, which was part of his game plan – but pars on the five-shot holes didn’t diminish his seven-birdie performance.

Koepka seems to be playing at a different level than his peers, noting of his game, “It’s never been this confident.” He understands his game and how it fits at various courses. He knows where to hit the ball, and it’s not always at the flagstick.

“Sometimes it's just about how few bogeys and doubles you make this week,” said Koepka, explaining his philosophy at major championships, a mindset that led to a bogey-free round.

In his past 13 rounds in the PGA Championship, Koepka has recorded 10 scores in the 60s, with a scoring average of 67.85, which is similar to his 67.8 scoring average in five major-championship rounds this year.

“I think I'm still learning, understanding my game, and I've figured it out,” he said. “Over the next few years, I'm excited for what's to come.”

To put the numbers into sharper focus, when Tiger Woods posted his best year in major championships, in 2000, he averaged 68.44 strokes per round in winning three of four events and placing fifth in the other one.

Woods was paired with Koepka on Thursday and came away impressed.

“He hit a couple loose tee shots today that ended up in good spots, but I think that was probably the highest score he could have shot today,” said Woods, who posted a 2-over 72. “He left a few out there with a couple putts that he missed, but it could have easily been a couple better.”

Other than the glaring lack of success on the par 5s, Koepka was a magician on the greens. He needed only 25 putts and holed 121 feet, 7 inches total, highlighted by a 33½-foot birdie putt on No. 9, his final hole after he started on the back nine. The performance put Koepka atop the field in strokes gained putting.

Koepka hit nine of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens in compiling one of the best rounds in major-championship history. Only Branden Grace’s 62 in the third round of the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale was lower.

In the history of major-championship golf, only 37 players have recorded rounds of 63 or better, starting with Johnny Miller’s final-round 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Koepka, who shot 63 in the second round of the 2018 PGA at Bellerive, was one of only eight of those 37 who went on to win.

Koepka called Thursday’s 63 “one of the best rounds I've played, probably, as a professional.”

“This golf course is brutal,” he said. “It tests every facet of your game. You've got to drive the ball straight. It's long, so you've got to hit it far and really position yourself with some of these shots in. You can't miss. You can't take a shot off, and that's what I love.”

Unlike many others who have taken an early lead in a major, Koepka, 29, has been tested at the big events. He already has won three major titles, including the past two U.S. Opens. He owns a psyche that is stronger than most, if not all, of his challengers.

“Brooks does a very good job at majors,” said England’s Tommy Fleetwood, who stood third at 67. “I think we all know that. I sure wouldn't be surprised if he was still there on Sunday. I think when you get to majors, there's definitely certain names and certain people that you've got to beat, and most of the time certain names and people pop up on the leaderboard.”

Even as a multi-major winner, Koepka has said that he was not getting the credit he deserved coming into this week. Those days finally might be in his rearview mirror.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli