FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Brooks Koepka concedes he is motivated by real and imagined slights. So he had to notice Tuesday when his appearance at a PGA Championship news conference was greeted by the sight of journalists scrambling out of the room like newspaper reporters — with press cards tucked in their fedoras — racing for a bank of pay phones in an old, black-and-white film.
Tiger Woods had just exited stage left after his own group interview, and why did anyone need to stick around to hear from the defending champ? At last month’s Masters, after delivering the most memorable moment of his golfing life, the 43-year-old Woods became what he had been in his dominant prime: the most recognizable and revered athlete on the planet. Two days before the start of the next major, the colorless Koepka had no chance to compete against that.
But Thursday morning at Bethpage Black, Koepka had his chance to compete against Woods in a much more favorable arena. They were grouped with Francesco Molinari and sent to the 10th tee, where each man shook hands with their standard-bearer, 16-year-old Alden Miller of Manhattan, and then, at 8:24 a.m. ET, started swinging away in what felt like a U.S. Open Championship inside a wet and monstrous ballpark that had already hosted two.
Koepka birdied their first hole from 40 feet away, and Woods double-bogeyed after muttering to himself when he realized his drive was heading for the gnarly rough. The muscleman who defeated Woods at last summer’s PGA at Bellerive had landed what he would later describe as the defining punch in this 18-round fight, leaving the man who had defeated him at Augusta National trying in vain to regain his footing.
Later, when surveying Koepka’s course record of 7-under 63, Woods said his opponent had posted “probably the highest score he could have shot today.” It was a hell of a compliment from the legend who shot 72 and was left with a nine-shot deficit that seemed impossible to overcome when considering the Tiger-like qualities of a 29-year-old leader who stands as the most ominous hurdle on Woods’ renewed chase of Jack Nicklaus‘ record of 18 major titles.
This is all Tiger’s fault, of course, because he inspired a generation of golfers who grew up watching him. Koepka was 6 years old when Woods won his first of 15 major championships — the 1997 Masters. Though Koepka’s father, Bob, used to tease his high school classmates for earning letterman jackets for golf because, he said, “I didn’t think it was a sport,” Woods helped make golf a viable option for Brooks and other versatile young athletes who lived in the gym and preferred to look more like NFL strong safeties.
“Brooks has never been a golf nerd,” was the way his swing coach, Claude Harmon III, put it.
Now the swaggering Koepka has three major victories to his name, including back-to-back U.S. Opens (the first man to do that since Curtis Strange in 1989), he feels free to declare his intent to win at least seven more.
“Yeah, I’ve got a number,” he said. “I don’t see why you can’t get to double digits.”
Koepka would explain that majors are easier to win than minors (he has only two non-major tour victories), that he’s mentally stronger than half the competitors and that the pressure will ultimately break many of the 35 players who are legitimate contenders.
“It only leaves you with a few more,” he reasoned, “and you just have to beat those guys.”
Koepka likely needed only one round at Bethpage to beat one of those guys, Woods. Tiger was sick and stayed in bed Wednesday rather than play his scheduled nine practice holes, leaving him with only nine holes of work all week and 18 the week before. His muscle memory from winning the 2002 U.S. Open here couldn’t overcome the lack of practice, and the lack of any competitive rounds since he won his fifth green jacket and made the world stop and cry.
Tiger Woods is tied for 55th after the first round of the PGA Championship while Brooks Koepka leads.
Woods overcame a second double-bogey at the par-3 17th, where he was buried in a bunker, by opening his second nine by making two birdies and then by sinking a 31-foot, right-to-left eagle putt at the fourth that put him under par for the first time. Tied for 58th at the turn, Woods was suddenly tied for fifth and only four off the lead. A fan had yelled at him, “Koepka’s scared of you,” a claim that was the worst play of the day.
Woods bogeyed three of the next four holes before Koepka finished his bogey-free round with a 33-foot birdie. While the two were sitting in the scoring room, Woods turned to Koepka and said, “Phenomenal round.”
Outside, Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott, explained that his boss — once a self-confessed college hothead who broke a lot of clubs in anger — never seems rattled in majors. Asked how Koepka remains so calm, Elliott said, “I don’t know. It must be just in him.”
Woods clearly respects Koepka’s poise and his power. Tiger stunned last summer’s PGA Championship winner by waiting for him to complete his final round to congratulate him on a job well done; Koepka returned the favor at Augusta. As they approached the 12th green together Thursday, Woods and Koepka shared a few laughs. They talked and laughed again during their extended wait on the tee box at No. 3.
Woods respects golfers who could have successfully competed in other sports, and those who would never be intimidated by him. Koepka is among the precious few in that category. He’s stronger than Tiger, longer than Tiger and just as determined as Tiger.
“The thing I get from this kid is he’s got a lot of confidence, and nothing bothers him,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “He was oblivious to the crowd screaming and yelling for Tiger.”
Not always. Koepka is human, and he has made it clear in the past that he’s felt underappreciated. He noticed when, after winning two majors last year, he wasn’t among the eight Tour Championship players invited to conduct a pre-tournament news conference.
Koepka admitted that “you’ve got to find a chip, or you’ve got to find something to motivate yourself and give you that extra little something going into a tournament … to really want to push you over that line”
He pushed himself over the line Thursday, when he shot 63 without birdieing either of the par-5s on a course he called “brutal.” When it was over, Koepka was asked what he had borrowed from Woods’ approach and mentality in the majors in his prime and applied to his own game.
“Just to grind on every shot,” he said. “You can’t take a shot off. … Just never give up, fight through it. You can’t take anything for granted out there.”
This is the Frankenstein monster Woods helped create, and now Koepka threatens the resurgent Tiger’s designs on the Nicklaus grail of 18 major victories. Can Koepka block Woods’ march on history?
To be determined. If nothing else in Round 1 at Bethpage, the defending champ made a statement with his clubs that was louder than anyone’s words.