The only question at Bethpage is if anyone can catch Brooks Koepka
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Here at the Brooks Koepka Invitational, you look at the leaderboard and try to appreciate the many possibilities for the weekend, with golf reputations of every size. But then, you look at the top line, and realize there is only one question to ask.
Is everyone else playing for first place this weekend at the PGA Championship, or second? We won’t know until Koepka shows a crack. If he ever does. So far, not a hint of that. Until there is, all other news is secondary -- even Tiger Woods missing the cut.
Another day, another joy ride over Bethpage Black Friday for the man who looks as unstoppable as the ocean tide on the shores of Long Island. Koepka finally had his first two bogeys of the tournament, but they were fine print in a second-round 65 that has him galloping ahead of the rest of the field by seven strokes. Seven. Largest lead ever after 36 holes at the PGA. And these foreboding words came from the mouth of Tiger Woods himself.
“He’s driving it in 330 yards in the middle of the fairway. He’s got 9-irons, when most of us are hitting 5-irons, 4-irons, and he’s putting well.
“There is no reason why he can’t increase this lead.”
Gee, that’s what people would say sometimes after the second round about . . . Tiger Woods.
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This is Brooks Koepka’s PGA to win, and Brooks Koepka’s history to make. He can roll to the finish and add back-to-back PGA championships to his current back-to-back U.S. Opens – something no man has ever done. Not Nicklaus, not Woods, not Palmer, not anyone. He can become the first wire-to-wire PGA champion in 36 years. His 36-hole score of 128 – a dominating show of force fashioned with 14 birdies – is the lowest two-round score ever in a major.
“I’d like to see that lead grow as large as it possibly can,” said Koepka. You wonder if he’ll even bother to look at the leaderboard Saturday. “There’s one about every two, three holes, so it’s tough not to look. I’ll check it out and see what’s going on.”
The golf world came here hoping to see something very, very special, but that was supposed to be Woods, right? “You think?” Koepka said. And Woods isn’t here anymore, after a 73 Friday left him a stroke below the cut line. Woods’ first drive went so far left into the rough at No. 1, there were fans pulling out their phones to get shots of his ball, buried in the thick grass. Never a good sign, when the gallery is close enough to take pictures of your golf ball. It was a long day from there, including missing 11 of 14 fairways.
Magic comes and magic goes. Or at least it clearly needed a rest after the Masters. “Just didn’t quite have it,” Woods said. Anyway, with no Woods, Koepka is now the BMOB – Big Man on Bethpage. Going 12-under par will do that. And he wasn’t even that dazzled by his own game Friday.
“This probably sounds bad, but today was a battle,” he said. “I didn’t strike it that good. I was leaking a few to the right.”
Sometimes he had to muscle it out of Bethpage’s killer rough. No problem. You see his forearms? “That’s why I go to the gym,” he said.
But let’s say, for the sake of not handing Koepka the Wanamaker Trophy Friday night and telling everyone to take the weekend off – that something shocking happens. It’s still golf. If you put on sunglasses and are not blinded by the glare of Koepka’s score, you can see there’s an extraordinary collection of compelling storylines behind him. It’s a PGA Championship of opportunity.
But only if one unflappable birdie machine allows it.
There’s Spieth tied for second, seven shots back after a 66. It’s been 22 months since his last victory, and if he doesn’t want to say he’s been in a slump, let’s call it a cool spell, or a nagging case of the inconsistencies. Whatever it is, if he’s a winner on Sunday, it’s over. Plus, he’ll have the career grand slam. Yeah, that’d be a story.
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There’s Adam Scott sharing second place, with a career of occasional – but not consistent – greatness. Sometimes at center stage, other times in the wilderness. It’s been a while since that one major win at the Masters in 2013, and this season, he hasn’t been able to make up his mind about his putter. He’s using his fifth now, a long putter with the flagstick in most of the time. Friday, he torched Bethpage’s greens for 165 feet worth of putts made. A win would change the entire narrative about Adam Scott.
There’s the gaggle of golfers tied for fourth, with the famous, and not so famous.
Dustin Johnson, whose address might as well be listed as No. 1 ranking, world. But he has been stuck at one in major championships, and a golfer of his stature naturally wants more. This is the place for long hitters, and he’s in the chase because he’s hit 30 of 36 greens in regulation.
Daniel Berger, one of the young guns flying under the weather, who could change his life in one week. Among his supporters at Bethpage Friday was father Jay, who was once ranked in the world’s top 10 in tennis and is now head of men’s tennis for the United States Tennis Association. Which makes you wonder how his son grew up hitting iron shots and not forehands.
Kelly Kraft, who wasn’t even in the field when the week began. Justin Thomas’ withdrawal due to injury opened a spot. Should he somehow win the PGA as an alternate – maybe you’ve heard of John Daly.
Luke List, the 34-year-old who has never won a PGA tournament. Matt Wallace from England, which has not produced a PGA champion since 1919.
Why, tied for 10th, there’s even Jazz Janewattananond. He might not win, but he’s the only guy in the field to once spend two weeks inside a Thailand temple as a monk. His real first name is Atiwit, but his dad back in Thailand liked jazz music. The best part of his 68 Thursday was listening to the New York fans attempt to chant his name. “They did try,” he said. “It didn’t come out right.”
Yep, lots of interesting plots up there on the board.
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But it’ll take something extraordinary for any of them to matter. “You don’t expect Brooks to fall at all,” Spieth said.
Koepka is crushing this tournament with a granite-solid game, and a laser focus. For two days, he played with Woods, walking amid the mania. That’s bothered some golfers. Not Koepka. Don’t even ask him how Woods played. He was too busy shooting 65 to notice. Or was it 63?
“I’ve gone these 36 holes, and I couldn’t tell you what shots any friend or Tiger hit. It really just doesn’t register of what’s going on. I really don’t remember anything that they have done, “ he said. “I learned that the first time I played with Tiger. All I did was watch him for nine holes. That’s what I grew up doing. I grew up watching him on TV and I spent the first nine holes, all I did was pay attention to every move he made, whether he was just picking up his tee, whatever it was. And you can’t do that. You’ve got to focus on your own game.”
So at 7:30 p.m. Friday, where was the very focused guy who is leading the PGA Championship by seven strokes? On the practice range, hitting drives. After all, Friday had been a battle, right?