Brooks Koepka a major presence again, leads the Masters

Apr 7, 2023, 3:45 PM

Brooks Koepka waves after his putt on the 13th hole during the second round of the Masters golf tou...

Brooks Koepka waves after his putt on the 13th hole during the second round of the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on Friday, April 7, 2023, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The notion that players who joined LIV Golf would risk being sharp and properly prepared for the majors doesn’t apply to Brooks Koepka. It never really mattered how much or how well Koepka was playing. The majors always seemed to bring out his best.

Based on two rounds at the Masters, they still do.

Gaining confidence and a bit of swagger in his step, Koepka breezed around Augusta National without a bogey on Friday for a 5-under 67, giving him the lead over U.S. Amateur champion Sam Bennett and allowing him to take shelter as the weather became a force.

Storms stopped play for 21 minutes. Less than an hour after it resumed, play was stopped again as gusts raged through the Georgia pines and felled at least three trees that crashed near spectators along the 17th tree.

The club said no one was injured, and roars soon were replaced by the rumbling motors of chain saws. Whether it was the cleanup or the storm cells, the second round was suspended until Saturday morning.

Jon Rahm was three shots behind through nine holes. Tiger Woods was hovering around the cut line at 2 over — his first shot Saturday in the chill will be from the tee at the par-3 12th. Woods has never missed the cut at the Masters as a pro.

Koepka played in the morning, and after making four par putts from about the 6-foot range through six holes, he was on his way. He was 5 under on the par 5s — including an eagle on No. 8 with a 3-iron to about 15 feet — and set the target at 12-under 132.

“I’m able to do everything I need to,” Koepka said. “And the confidence is there. The confidence was lost just because of my knee, and that was it.”

The real surprise was who was chasing him — Bennett, the Texas A&M senior, who had another 68 and posted the lowest 36-hole score at the Masters by an amateur since Ken Venturi in 1956.

He was four shots behind.

“I think I am prepared. The hard work’s done. I made the cut as an amateur. I kind of made my mark. I played steady golf,” Bennett said. “Now it’s time for me to go out and enjoy, soak it all in, be able to play the weekend at the Masters.”

The other surprise was Rory McIlroy, the No. 2 player in the world looked upon as one of the favorites to finally get the one major keeping him from the career Grand Slam. That likely will have to wait at least another year.

McIlroy, the loudest voice against the Saudi-funded rival league, was headed for an early exit. He has failed to break par in the Masters in six of his last eight rounds.

Koepka was a force in the majors when he was healthy, winning four out of the eight he played in one stretch — back-to-back U.S. Opens (2017-18) and PGA Championships (2018-2019). Four of his first six wins on the PGA Tour were majors.

But he missed the 2018 Masters with a wrist injury and didn’t want to be left out again. That’s why he tried to play at Augusta in 2021, just three weeks after surgery to repair his shattered kneecap. He could only stoop over to read putts and missed the cut.

He missed the cut again last year, and he was so frustrated he said he tried to smash the back window in his courtesy car with his fist — not once, but twice.

That was a failure, too.

“Apparently, not strong enough,” Koepka said. “I guess Mercedes makes a pretty good back window.”

So much has transpired from then to now, most significantly LIV Golf.

Koepka signed for a reported $100 million, a big temptation for someone who wasn’t entirely confident his body — and his game — would ever be what it was. He was asked Friday if the decision to sign with LIV would have been more difficult had he not been injured.

“If I’m being completely honest, I think it would have been,” he said. “But I’m happy with the decision I made.”

He became the first player to win twice in the 10 events LIV has staged (each worth $4 million to him), and that has not gone unnoticed.

Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth (70) was seven shots behind and quickly acknowledged Koepka has slept on major championship leads more often than he has.

“Ideally it would be somebody who would care more and potentially be feeling different than maybe Brooks will be,” Spieth said. “But at the same time, it’s been a little while for him, too.

“He did win last week. I don’t know kind of the way that feels on the LIV Tour, but he did win there against really good players, and comes in playing in great control of his game and has dealt with pushing a lead already out here.”

Most telling of the turnaround for Koepka was on the par-5 13th when he faced a 30-foot putt from just off the green. Waiting his turn, Koepka crouched to study his line and stayed in that position for nearly a minute. Two years ago, he couldn’t have done that for a second.

“It feels really good, being able to just get down and not have to think about it,” he said.

Viktor Hovland, tied with Koepka and Rahm after Thursday, was 1 over for his round and at 6 under through 10 holes. Cameron Young put up nine pars and was still at 5 under. Those were the closest threats to Koepka among those who hadn’t finished their rounds.

Those are the kind of players Koepka once faced regularly until leaving for the 48-man league of LIV Golf and its 54-hole tournaments and guaranteed money.

He misses that competition — Koepka played a practice round with McIlroy on Tuesday to measure his game — and now only gets that in the majors.

“That’s what I think makes these majors so cool,” he said.

Koepka always thrived in them even in different times. Along with four titles, he has 12 finishes in the top 10 dating to 2014. Now he looks to be back on track.

He is walking — and talking — like the Koepka of old.

“The whole goal is to win the Grand Slam, right? I feel like all the greats have won here and they have all won British Opens, as well,” he said. “Look, I guess it’s one more box for me to tick to truly feel like I’ve done what I should have accomplished in this game.”

___

AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Brooks Koepka a major presence again, leads the Masters