American trails China’s Haotong Li by 2 strokes after 36 holes, but the 2-time defending champ is more than just another contender
Tommy Fleetwood had a surprising thought Friday afternoon after he deposited his drive in the final fairway at San Francisco's TPC Harding Park.
Ohhh! he said to himself. I could make a birdie for 63!
It was an important moment in this PGA Championship. Not because Fleetwood made that birdie. He didn’t, settling for a sterling 64, a score matched by big-hitting Cameron Champ as the tournament’s low round … so far.
Fleetwood’s fleeting image of 63 is a reminder that Harding Park is gettable. Its narrow fairways, tangled rough and ever-firmer greens are slowing down some of the field, especially those with afternoon tee times who faced gustier winds and crustier, faster putting surfaces. But Fleetwood and Champ and others proved that a player who hits fairways and greens still can take Harding Park to the mat. That means that just about anyone who made the 36-hole cut and fires a pair of weekend 65s will be a contender.
Of course, shooting a pair of weekend 65s at Harding Park with this rough will be as easy as walking a tightrope stretched between two aircraft carriers in the North Sea. The Big Takeaway from Friday’s second round is going to sound familiar: Brooks Koepka still looks like the man to beat, even though he hasn’t played flawless golf, and, oh, yeah, doesn’t have the lead. That spot belongs to China’s Haotong Li, who shot a bogey-free 65 to reach 8-under 132. Koepka was among six players, including Fleetwood and former major champions Jason Day and Justin Rose, who were tied for second, two strokes back (scores).
The only concern about Koepka, who is going for a third consecutive PGA Championship title, is his health. He’s had a troublesome left knee, but Friday said it was a tight left hip that caused him to get down on the ground a few times later in the round and have his trainer stretch him out. Maybe it’s nothing, as Koepka said post-round, or maybe he just tightened up in the cool evening air, but it is startling to see a major-championship contender lying on the ground repeatedly during the back nine.
Koepka fears no one in golf. He took down Tiger Woods at the 2018 PGA in St. Louis. He outlasted his workout buddy Dustin Johnson in last year’s PGA at Bethpage Black. Justin Thomas was among the pursuers who came close but not really that close when Koepka broke through for his first major title, in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Who else is there? Rory McIlroy hasn’t won a major since Koepka has been on the PGA Tour. Koepka, meanwhile, won four of the past 10 majors and has four other top-6 finishes in those events. Fleetwood, maybe? Koepka survived Fleetwood’s closing 63 in the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills to win that one. Fleetwood was a hero of the last Ryder Cup but he might have some residual scar tissue, courtesy of Koepka.
Fleetwood also isn’t sure just how ready he is. Friday, he was as sharp as ever, racking up seven birdies. He spent two weeks playing Long Island’s finest courses after flying across the Atlantic Ocean and self-quarantining. Did that help him prepare for this major? He doesn’t know, either.
“You reset, you come back and the game doesn’t feel as easy as it once did,” Fleetwood said. “It was an amazing time to be home. We travel so much. I haven’t spent four months in the same place since I was 16.”
Koepka isn’t automatic, not like the young Tiger Woods was. He doesn’t set tournament scoring records, either, the way Woods did, at one point holding all four 72-hole scoring marks in the majors. His intimidation factor may be less than Woods’ was, but it is there nonetheless.
It’s too early to dismiss the other contenders. Li is no schlub, for instance. He joined an exclusive club of players who shot 63 in a major when he did it during the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale and finished third.
But Li hasn’t managed a top-10 finish in more than a year, and he conceded that he arrived in San Francisco with “no confidence.” He affirmed that comment by showing up on the practice range until late evening. Maybe that means Li was searching for something in his swing. Maybe it means he just likes to practice.
“He’s got the arsenal to take it low, but we don’t see consistency out of him,” said Australia’s Adam Scott, a Presidents Cup teammate of Li’s. “I guess I’d call him erratic. He’s young. He plays pretty much with all guns blazing, and when it comes off, it’s really good.”
When Koepka birdied two of the first four holes Friday and quickly closed on Li, he appeared poised to step over the field the way he did last year at Bethpage Black. But he left some birdie putts short and missed just enough fairways to let the opportunity slip away. By evening’s end, he was just one of a posse of players looking up at Li.
Then came the 18th hole, where he reminded us that he isn’t just one of the posse. He hit a shot from an awkward lie in a fairway bunker to 7 feet, then made a reassuring birdie putt to get within two shots of Li’s lead. Even the usually low-key Koepka called the bunker shot “incredible” in a post-round chat with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi.
There are 36 holes left, and no one is going to concede this PGA to Koepka, who said his round “obviously could’ve been a lot better” but that he likes his position.
The man seems to get more bulletproof as a major wears on, though. He’s done it before. The fact that he’s got his putter working again after a session last week with Phil Kenyon is huge. In every major that he won, Koepka was practically automatic inside 10 feet.
Koepka doesn’t have the lead going into Saturday’s third round. This PGA Championship is not his to lose.
Right now, however, it feels like it’s still his to win.
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