NATIONAL NEWS

Koepka living large at Masters, leads with Rahm and Hovland

Apr 6, 2023, 4:41 PM

Jon Rahm, of Spain, waves after his putt on the 18th hole during the first round of the Masters gol...

Jon Rahm, of Spain, waves after his putt on the 18th hole during the first round of the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka shared the lead Thursday in the Masters, and that’s about all they had in common.

Not the way they started their rounds at Augusta National. Certainly not the tours they represent — Rahm a loyalist on the PGA Tour, Koepka a surprise defector to LIV Golf.

All that mattered was the 7-under 65s on their cards, allowing them to join Viktor Hovland atop a leaderboard filled with red numbers and the ominous “weather warning” signs that figure to play a big role this week.

A bad forecast has been talked about almost as much as how 18 players from Saudi-backed LIV Golf would perform amid the high-stakes pressure of a major over 72 holes with a cut.

Koepka carried the flag, though he was more thrilled with having healthy legs and a bit of swagger that once led to his reputation as “Big Game Brooks.”

“Once you feel good, everything changes,” Koepka said.

Rahm opened with a four-putt double bogey, and on his way to the second tee thought of the famous quote from his Spanish idol, Seve Ballesteros, who once four-putted at Augusta and said, “I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.”

“If you’re going to make a double or four-putt, it might as well be the first hole — 71 holes to make it up,” Rahm said.

That he did. The Spaniard followed with seven birdies and an eagle, and his 65 was the lowest score in Masters history by anyone who started with a double bogey.

Koepka had two birdies in his opening three holes and never really slowed, finishing with back-to-back birdies to finish off his 65. He is coming off a victory Sunday in LIV Golf, making him the first multiple winner in the fledgling circuit.

Koepka won the 2019 PGA Championship — his fourth major in a span of three years — that gave him a five-year exemption to the Masters. That runs out next year, and with LIV not getting any world ranking points, his path to Augusta is limited.

“If you win, you’re fine,” he said.

Hovland was among the early starters and played bogey-free, the highlight a 25-foot eagle putt on the second hole and being 7 under through 13 holes until he cooled at the end. The Norwegian star also stood out for other reasons. The azaleas are starting to lose their color from an early bloom. Hovland made up for it with his shirt.

“It’s definitely a little bit out there,” Hovland said. “But I think I’d rather take these than the pink pants I had last year. So we’re making progress.”

The warm, muggy air and relatively soft greens allowed for good scores for just about everyone. Cameron Young and Jason Day were at 67.

Defending champion Scottie Scheffler, trying to become only the fourth player to win back-to-back, was in the group at 68 that included major champions Shane Lowry, Adam Scott and Gary Woodland, along with Xander Schauffele and U.S. Amateur champion Sam Bennett.

Missing from the red numbers was Tiger Woods, who now has to worry about a chance to don that Sunday red shirt. He has never missed the cut as a pro in the Masters and will have some work to do if he wants to keep that streak alive.

Woods had a few lip-outs and a lot of limping. Woods saw plenty of birdies — he played with Hovland and Schauffele — but made only one himself over 14 holes. He had a late spark until finishing with a bogey for a 74.

It was his highest start in the Masters since 2005. He wound up winning that year, but this is a 47-year-old Woods with hardware holding his right leg together and a back that has gone through five surgeries. He said he was sore. He looked the part.

“Most of the guys are going low today. This was the day to do it,” Woods said. “Hopefully, tomorrow I’ll be a little bit better, a little bit sharper, and kind of inch my way through it.”

Woods wasn’t the only one who failed to take advantage. Rory McIlroy, needing a Masters green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam, took a double bogey from the trees on the par-4 seventh and had three more bogeys to offset his good play. He wound up with a 72, already seven shots behind a world-class leaderboard.

Rahm only a month ago was playing so well he looked unstoppable — three wins on the PGA Tour over his first five starts, all against strong fields. And then he dropped from No. 1 to No. 3 in no time as Scheffler and McIlroy surged.

Consider his opening round — even the four-putt double bogey — to be a reminder that his game is sharp and his passion is burning hot to be the next Spaniard to win the Masters.

That he could recall a funny line from Ballesteros so soon after a crushing start was a good sign. He thought his putting stroke was good on all of them. So he moved on. Rahm hit every fairway and missed only one green.

He hammered a 4-iron from 249 yards on the par-5 eighth that caught the ridge side of the green and fed down to 4 feet for eagle. He birdied four of his last six holes, finishing with an 8-iron to 3 feet on the 18th.

“The one on 18 takes the cake,” Rahm said. “The one on 18 was just perfect drive, great second shot and tap-in for birdie. You don’t usually get a walk-off birdie over here, and those two swings were about as good as they could feel.”

For Koepka, it’s all about feeling good. His health has long been an issue; he played the Masters in 2021 just three weeks after surgery on his broken knee cap.

His health — not to mention a nine-figure signing bonus — is one reason he went from supporting the PGA Tour to making the leap to LIV. Koepka says he started to feel healthy again toward the end of last year. He arrived in Augusta off a win.

“Get myself in contention with nine to go on Sunday,” he said. “That’s the whole goal.”

___

AP golf: https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Koepka living large at Masters, leads with Rahm and Hovland