PGA Championship 2019: Big Bad Brooks Koepka holds a dominating lead after Day 2 at Bethpage Black
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — It might have seemed odd when Brooks Koepka declared major championships “sometimes the easiest to win” earlier this week, but boy does it seem to make sense now. Big Bad Brooks shot another phenomenal round on Friday, and at Big Bad Bethpage, nonetheless. With a seven-birdie 65, Koepka walked away from the course Friday evening with a preposterous seven-shot lead. Only once he finished his round did he finally crack a smile.
If this all feels familiar, it’s because it is. At these cherished major championships, where the norm is often thrown out the door, Koepka keeps everything the same. It’s the BK way. He flies in with his caddie during the month prior, analyzes the sight lines and carry distances off the tee, and pays less attention to the green slopes and speeds other players cram into their yardage books. He brings the same, small group of people to a rented house near the course and keeps it largely on lockdown. His chef this week is the one he brings to every major, and who now moves around with Koepka full-time. (On the menu Friday night was roasted chicken thighs over sweet potato hash.) The only difference for Koepka this week is his enormous lead.
“I’d like to see that lead grow as large as it possibly can,” Koepka said after the round. Prior to Friday, no one had ever played 36 holes of major championship golf in 128 strokes. It brings to mind Martin Kaymer, who played the first two rounds at the 2014 U.S. Open in 130 strokes, and led by six. That weekend was particularly uneventful (Kaymer won by eight), and this isn’t exactly that — it’s a PGA Championship, not a U.S. Open — but it isn’t far off. The work of every other player in the field has felt trivial, and touchdown deficits are hard to overcome on poa annua.
Koepka’s Friday started quickly, with birdies on the first two holes. He added another circle to his card on the par-5 4th hole. Only on the 10th did he finally make a bogey on this brutally tough course. It was the kind of stranglehold that Koepka has used in each of his three major victories. Zero steps back. Only steps forward.
Earlier in the day, a very cute game of Can You Catch Koepka was playing out. All the contestants were trying their hardest. First came Danny Lee, who scorched Bethpage on his own Thursday with a six-under 64. He gave back all six of those shots to par in his first seven holes.
Next came Dustin Johnson. DJ made five birdies on his first eight holes to get within sniffing distance of his weight-lifting buddy, only to stall out with an even-par second nine. Right now, Bethpage has a way of doing that. This lengthy course, with its wicked rough, is where momentum goes to die.
From within Johnson’s group came a charging Jordan Spieth, back from par purgatory. Spieth made four birdies on his second nine and signed for a 66 while Koepka was still warming up. If only that mattered. At 1:50 p.m. Koepka chose the God Line off the 1st tee.
While Tiger Woods fished his ball out of the wild fescue, Koepka left himself an easy 59 yards in. Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Cameron Champ — your cream-of-the-crop long-bombers — all took that same line Friday. Only Koepka made birdie. That’s how this event is going. Everyone is playing the same course. Many are hitting the same shots. There is no morning draw offering better conditions than the afternoon. All seems equal, except it somehow isn’t.
“This probably sounds bad, but today was a battle,” Koepka admitted. “I didn’t strike it that good. I was leaking a few to the right. But the way I hung in there today and battled it, I think that was probably more impressive than yesterday — not having your A game but still being able to shoot a great score.”
At this point, “leaking a few to the right” means hitting 10 of 14 fairways (an improvement over Round 1!) and 15 of 18 greens (also an improvement!). That’s how backwards Koepka has turned this PGA Championship. Seven birdies in each round, with subtle progress along the way. That is all to say nothing of his putting. After an eight-or-nine month hiatus, according to Koepka, he re-enlisted putting coach Jeff Pierce prior to the Masters. To him, the results have been obvious. Koepka said he’s never felt more comfortable with the flatstick than he does this week.
Technically speaking, Can You Catch Koepka played out into the afternoon, too, with Adam Scott making seven birdies on his own, reaching six under on the leaderboard. Following the form of not only the field but also his career, Scott’s perfect round was tainted by a late bogey. And it was ugly: a blocked 24-inch tap-in. Matt Wallace toyed with the final pairing, too, but he bogeyed his 16th and 17th holes of the day to finish eight shots back. Instead, Spieth will hold the honor of playing alongside Koepka as he chases yet another major, and potentially some history along with it.
It all brings us to a premature inflection point. After 36 holes, players generally believe they control their own destiny. Play as you intend to, and you can win. Johnson, who spoke so innocently before Koepka teed off, was no different. “I’m happy with where I’m at no matter what the lead is after today,” he said. “I’m going to be somewhere around it or close enough to where with 36 holes left, I’m okay.”
Six hours later, he was not. No one else is okay. They all have hope, sure, but inevitability is becoming Koepka’s second study. “If the guy can just keep doing that for another two days, then there’s not much you can do,” Scott said. “But I think someone, hopefully me, will chip away tomorrow…Yeah, I know he’s won three majors. I know he seems impenetrable at the moment in this position, but at some point he’s got to think about it.”
It’s an astute point, and really the only one worth having. At Bethpage Black every hole has been double bogeyed at least once this week. Scott is right — in reality, this tournament isn’t over. But what about it has felt like reality?