For a man with a dodgy knee, the idea of Brooks Koepka making the early running at the longest course in the history of major tournament golf sounds about as likely as one of his booming drives finding dry land in the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet he appeared completely at ease with his game around Kiawah Island's windswept Ocean Course on Thursday morning, rolling in six birdies in a quite remarkable start to the 103rd US PGA Championship that ended with a 69 nobody could have seen coming. Apart from himself.
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The latest chapter of the Brooks story was written in some style after the 2018 and 2019 winner looked ready to toss his clubs into the wide blue yonder after opening with a spirit-crushing six on his first hole of the day at the par-four 10th hole.
“What an idiot I was," conceded Koepka, who finished two strokes behind leader Corey Conners of Canada, whose five-under 67 later in the afternoon included six birdies and one bogey to establish a two-shot lead at the summit of the 156-man field in South Carolina.
The first rule is, if you’re in trouble, get the hell out. I couldn’t reach the green. It was a bad lie. Just tried to hit a pull sand wedge up by the green instead of just chopping it out. So mental mistake there. Deserved every bit of that double bogey.
“It kind of helped me refocus. I can’t play with any mistakes, maybe one a day, and that was my one, and I got it out of the way the first hole.”
From plus two after one, Koepka was not faultless, he dropped a shot at the 15th hole, amid the unforgiving winds at a Pete Dye-designed course meant to test the game's true muscle men weighing in at 7,660 yards of its full 7,876 quota perched on the Atlantic Ocean. But one does not need to be when the putter is purring and the mind is tuned in.
It is an astonishing return to form for the 31-year former world number one, who was forced to undergo knee surgery on March 16 and has completed only four competitive rounds since the end of February after missing the halfway cut at the US Masters last month and the Byron Nelson last week when walking seemed more of a priority.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in hindsight, he was not surprised by his performance on the opening day despite suggesting prior to the event he was six months away from returning to full fitness.
“It’s a major. I’m going to show up,” said Koepka, who finished six shots clear of playing partners and fellow former champions Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, who both carded disappointing 75s to finish three over respectively.
I’m ready to play. I’ve been itching to do this since Augusta. I mean, I feel so much better now. I don’t need to be 100 per cent to be able to play good.
“I love it when it's difficult. I think that's why I do so well in the majors,” added Koepka, US Open winner in 2017 and 2018.
“I just know mentally I can grind it out. Like when it's windy like this, it's not so much putting, it's more about ball striking, and I felt like I struck it really well today.”
Koepka's effort was matched by Viktor Hovland, Aaron Wise, Sam Horsfield, Cameron Davis and 2011 US PGA winner Keegan Bradley, who all carded 69 to share second place.
Four-times major champion McIlroy won the first of his two PGA titles at Kiawah Island by eight strokes in 2012, but faces a battle with history to achieve a hat-trick on Sunday evening after finishing eight strokes behind Conners.
The last winner to make such a poor start to a US PGA Championship was John Mahaffey, who recovered from recording a four over 75 at Oakmont in 1978 to defeat Jerry Pate and Tom Watson in a sudden death play-off.
World number one Dustin Johnson looks in deep trouble as he slumped to a 76, but Jordan Spieth – bidding to become the sixth man to achieve the career grand slam – battled his way to an opening 73.
Bryson DeChambeau and Jon Rahm both settled for par 72s on a day when it was easy to play yourself out of contention for the Wanamaker Trophy.
LIke Koepka, 50-year-old Phil Mickelson showed he still has the ability to be a contender in the majors after being granted an exemption for next month's US Open.
The 2005 champion and five-times major winner roared back in 32 with four birdies after going out in 38 to sign for 70 alongside defending champion Collin Morikawa that leaves him well in the mix before the second round on Friday.
“In the last couple of months, I’ve been starting to play good golf, but I’ve had a little bit of trouble staying present on every shot for the entire round,” said Mickelson.
“I thought I did a pretty good job of that today after I got off to kind of a rough start, but I was able to kind of right the ship on the downwind holes, the holes you can take advantage of.”
Leader Conners has finished inside the top 10 in the past two Masters, but this was a different set of demands than Augusta in the face of howling winds over the closing five holes that needs precision from distance with the par-four 18th playing the toughest on the course at an average of 4.49.
Just seven players produced birdies with 61 signing for bogey and nine experiencing a double bogey or worse. Conners nailed his approach with a hybrid club from 217 yards in a demonstration of technical excellence.
"I have a lot of belief in myself, and I've been playing well for quite a while," said Conners. "I'm excited for the opportunity to play against the best players in the world and put my game to the test."
- 1 Corey Conners 67
- T2 Keegan Bradley 69
- T2 Viktor Hovland 69
- T2 Brooks Koepka 69
- T2 Aaron Wise 69
- T2 Sam Horsfield 69
- T2 Cameron Davis 69
- T8 Phil Mickelson 70
- T8 Martin Laird 70
- T8 Cameron Tringale 70
- T9 Kevin Streelman 70
- T8 Gary Woodland 70
- T8 Branden Grace 70
- T8 Sungjae Im 70
- T8 Collin Morikawa 70 -
FRIDAY'S SECOND-ROUND TEE TIMES (LOCAL TIME, BST +5 HOURS)
- 7 a.m. -- Si Woo Kim, Danny Balin, Jim Herman
- 7:11 a.m. -- Sami Valimaki, Joe Summerhays, Richy Werenski
- 7:22 a.m. -- Sebastian Munoz, Tim Pearce, Sam Horsfield
- 7:33 a.m. -- Y.E. Yang, Shaun Micheel, Rich Beem
- 7:44 a.m. -- Joaquin Niemann, J.T. Poston, Aaron Rai
- 7:55 a.m. -- Branden Grace, Adam Hadwin, Rasmus Hojgaard
- 8:06 a.m. -- Russell Henley, Jazz Janewattananond, Carlos Ortiz
- 8:17 a.m. -- Adam Sullivan, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Kevin Streelman
- 8:28 a.m. -- Ian Poulter, Brian Harman, Sungjae Im
- 8:39 a.m. -- Antoine Rozier, Chez Reavie, Brandon Stone
- 8:50 a.m. -- Victor Perez, Omar Uresti, Maverick McNealy
- 9:01 a.m. -- Tyler Collet, Brendon Todd, Lucas Herbert
- 9:12 a.m. -- Ben Cook, Mackenzie Hughes, Takumi Kanaya
- 12:30 p.m. -- Ben Polland, Talor Gooch, Harry Higgs
- 12:41 p.m. -- Rob Labritz, Brendan Steele, Harold Varner III
- 12:52 p.m. -- Paul Casey, Garrick Higgo, Marc Leishman
- 1:03 p.m. -- Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott, Tyrrell Hatton
- 1:14 p.m. -- Robert MacIntyre, Cameron Champ, John Catlin
- 1:25 p.m. -- Zach Johnson, Francesco Molinari, Scottie Scheffler
- 1:36 p.m. -- Louis Oosthuizen, Ryan Palmer, Thomas Detry
- 1:47 p.m. -- Lee Westwood, Viktor Hovland, Xander Schauffele
- 1:58 p.m. -- Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka
- 2:09 p.m. -- Collin Morikawa, Bryson DeChambeau, Hideki Matsuyama
- 2:20 p.m. -- Charley Hoffman, Matt Wallace, Erik van Rooyen
- 2:31 p.m. -- Chan Kim, Brett Walker, Brian Gay
- 2:42 p.m. -- Aaron Wise, Sonny Skinner, Kalle Samooja
- 7:05 a.m. -- Frank Bensel, Jr., Robert Streb, Kurt Kitayama
- 7:16 a.m. -- Alex Beach, Daniel Van Tonder, Wyndham Clark
- 7:27 a.m. -- Abraham Ancer, Max Homa, Sam Burns
- 7:38 a.m. -- Tony Finau, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Corey Conners
- 7:49 a.m. -- Phil Mickelson, Jason Day, Padraig Harrington
- 8 a.m. -- Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, Patrick Reed
- 8:11 a.m. -- Gary Woodland, Justin Rose, Cameron Smith
- 8:22 a.m. -- Steve Stricker, Billy Horschel, Daniel Berger
- 8:33 a.m. -- Webb Simpson, Jordan Spieth, Will Zalatoris
- 8:44 a.m. -- Dustin Johnson, Shane Lowry, Sergio Garcia
- 8:55 a.m. -- Thomas Pieters, Patrick Cantlay, Matt Kuchar
- 9:06 a.m. -- Chris Kirk, Pete Ballo, Cam Davis
- 9:17 a.m. -- Dean Burmester Greg Koch, K.H. Lee
- 12:25 p.m. -- Patrick Rada, Adam Long, Cameron Tringale
- 12:36 p.m. -- Dylan Frittelli, Larkin Gross, Matt Jones
- 12:47 p.m. -- Byeong Hun-An, Derek Holmes, George Coetzee
- 12:58 p.m. -- Bernd Wiesberger, Tom Hoge, Joel Dahmen
- 1:09 p.m. -- John Daly, Jimmy Walker, Jason Dufner
- 1:20 p.m. -- Kevin Kisner, Martin Laird, Hudson Swafford
- 1:31 p.m. -- Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett, Bubba Watson
- 1:42 p.m. -- Keegan Bradley, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel
- 1:53 p.m. -- Harris English, Stewart Cink, Alex Noren
- 2:04 p.m. -- Kevin Na, Tom Lewis, Jason Kokrak
- 2:15 p.m. -- Jason Scrivener, Stuart Smith, Emiliano Grillo
- 2:26 p.m. -- Brad Marek, Peter Malnati, Lanto Griffin
- 2:37 p.m. -- Mark Geddes, Denny McCarthy, Rikuya Hoshino
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