FARMINGDALE, NEW YORK | What if Brooks Koepka is just getting started?
What if the three major championships he has already won (in seven starts) are the kindling on a long-burning fire?
Might Koepka ultimately win a double-digit number of major championships as he suggested Tuesday in his pre-PGA Championship press conference?
Koepka dropped that self-revelatory nugget in so comfortably – “I mean, I’ve got a number. I don’t see why you can’t get to double digits,” he said – it was easy to miss. It was an audacious statement considering only three players in history – Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Walter Hagen – have won 10 or more majors, but Koepka has a way of boiling things down to their simplest form and seeing through the smoke.
Seven more means winning as many majors as Arnold Palmer, Bobby Jones and Sam Snead won in their careers. To which Koepka would probably respond, “Yeah, I know.”
Naturally, Koepka went out Thursday – grouped with Tiger Woods and Francesco Molinari – and deconstructed the Bethpage Black beast, shooting a 7-under-par 63 that gave the season’s second major championship a small sense of inevitability before half the field had begun play.
Three long, grinding days remain on a course capable of sucking the steam out of anyone but Koepka has the gift of supreme confidence.
“Never been this confident,” Koepka said.
It shows in the way he walks. The way he talks. The way he turned one of the most difficult courses in the world into his plaything Thursday. He was first in strokes gained off the tee, second in strokes gained approaching the green and first in strokes gained putting. That doesn’t require the new math to know what that equals.
Maybe Koepka fades. Maybe someone outplays him over the next three days. Maybe a cow will jump over the moon.
The most impressive thing about what Koepka did Thursday may not have been the number he shot, though it equaled the lowest score in tournament history and made him the only player with two 63s in this championship, pairing it with the one he shot in the second round of his victory at Bellerive last August.
Koepka has cultivated an image built on being overlooked and underappreciated. It worked through last summer, through his second consecutive U.S. Open victory, but not after he took down Tiger in winning the PGA Championship in St. Louis.
The biggest takeaway was how few were surprised by what Koepka did.
“He’s pretty darned good at majors,” Koepka’s friend Rickie Fowler said, his opening 69 among the day’s best scores. “I think over the last couple years, it’s something that everyone has gotten used to.”
“I think he’s the best player in the world right now,” Graeme McDowell said.
And Woods, who outdueled Koepka at the Masters last month, wondered what the leader could have shot Thursday.
“It could have easily been a couple better,” Woods said.
Koepka has cultivated an image built on being overlooked and underappreciated. It worked through last summer, through his second consecutive U.S. Open victory, but it didn’t work after he took down Tiger in winning the PGA Championship in sweaty St. Louis.
Even Koepka has trouble selling it these days, though there is no question Woods remains the game’s alpha male, at least with the fans. Now that Woods has regained his major-championship winning mojo, it’s Koepka – not Rory McIlroy or Dustin Johnson or Justin Rose – who stands as his most formidable challenger.
Should Koepka remain out front or near the lead this weekend, it will be fun to listen to the Bethpage galleries and how they take to him. As Koepka was teeing up his ball at on the first tee Thursday, a fan bellowed, “Hey, Biceps.” Koepka acted like he didn’t hear it.
Maybe he heard the same guy say, “That is one sexy man,” after Koepka ripped into his tee shot.
The galleries, which left almost no corner of this beautiful, sprawling property uncovered, were on their good behavior Thursday. There was a distinct New York flavor – it was a “Yo, Bubba, how you doin’?” kind of day – but the weekend is when the party should really start.
Remember the way Koepka marched through the melting heat at Bellerive last summer, seemingly feeding off the thunder echoing down from what Tiger was doing in front of him? He might not win this PGA Championship but it won’t be because any part of the moment is too big for him.
What about Sunday at the Masters when Koepka had a chance to win only to commit the doomsday mistake of hitting his tee shot in the water at the par-3 12th, leading to a double bogey? Was that a matter of nerves, a wrinkle in his armor?
Koepka said it was the wind, which switched and killed his tee shot, not a mistake in execution. He responded with an eagle at the 13th hole but still came up a single shot short of winning a fourth major in less than two years.
Danny Lee showed Thursday afternoon that Koepka isn’t the only one capable of handling Bethpage, shooting a 64 that thrust him into the story. Tommy Fleetwood, Fowler and major-championship flirt Tony Finau are all off to solid starts.
It’s Koepka, though, who is in a position to turn a great run into something greater.
“I’m just going about my business,” Koepka said.
The business of winning major championships.
Brooks Koepka’s 7-under-par 63 was posted Thursday before much of the afternoon wave in the first round of the PGA Championship teed off. Photo: Christian Petersen, PGA of America via Getty Images
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