Brooks Koepka back in pole position at PGA Championship: ‘It’s a major; I’m going to show up’

Brooks Koepka hacks out during the first round of the PGA.

Brooks Koepka recovered from an early double bogey to shoot 69.

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Brooks Koepka is contending at the PGA Championship. Surprising? Yes and no. But you already know his answer.

“It’s a major; I’m going to show up,” Koepka said on Thursday, after he signed for a three-under 69 on Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, momentarily silencing anyone who questioned how he’d perform as he recovers from a knee injury. “I’m ready to play. I’ve been itching to do this since Augusta. I mean, I feel so much better now. I don’t need to be 100 percent to be able to play good.”

Koepka sits in a six-way tie for second, as only Corey Conners, who played in the afternoon wave, went lower. He shot a five-under 67 and has a two-shot advantage after Day 1.

Just like his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday, Koepka’s post-round media session still focused on the health of his right knee. He had surgery to fix a dislocated kneecap and ligament damage in March and didn’t play the entire month, then appeared at the Masters and had to crouch awkwardly on the greens so he could limit the pain as he read putts. He missed the cut there and did again last week at the Byron Nelson, which until this week had been his only other start since surgery.

Koepka crouches to read a putt during the first round.

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On Tuesday he said he felt good enough to hit every shot and that walking the Ocean Course — lacking the undulation of Augusta National — would actually be easier on his knee.

“I got everything under control and know what I’m doing,” he said. “Last week was a good test just to see where I’m at for two days. I thought if I got four, it would be nice, but two days of rest didn’t hurt me.”

Playing in a featured grouping with Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas and starting on the par-4 10th Thursday, Koepka found a waste bunker off the tee when his 3-wood didn’t carry the trouble. He next shot hit the face of a dune and only advanced seven feet. From there he pitched out and made double bogey.

“The first rule is, if you’re in trouble, get the hell out,” he said. “I couldn’t reach the green. It was a bad lie. Didn’t know what I was doing. Just tried to hit a pull sand wedge up by the green instead of just chopping it out. So mental mistake there. Deserved every bit of that double bogey.”

Turns out Koepka said that early error helped him refocus. He birdied two of the next three, went bogey-birdie on 15-16, and then shot three under on the front nine for a 69. While he struggled off the tee — his Strokes Gained: Off the Tee ranking was 134th out of 155 — he ranked third in SG: Approach and was T2 in SG: Total.

This should not be surprising, though, really. His major pedigree is among the best in the game and he’s dominated the last four years, including winning this tournament two of the last three playings. In his 21 major starts since 2015, he’s racked up 12 top 10s and nine top 5s. Fifteen players entered the week with better odds to win than Koepka, who was 50/1.

“I felt like I already had confidence,” he said. “So in my mind, it’s just a major week. Just show up. That’s all you’ve got to do.”

On Thursday, Koepka still crouched to read putts with his right leg kicked out to the side, but said his knee felt “fine” after his round. As for the Ocean Course’s tough conditions, which are only likely to get more treacherous, bring it on, he says.

“I love it when it’s difficult,” the four-time major champ said. “I think that’s why I do so well in the majors. I just know mentally I can grind it out.”

Several hours after Koepka completed his round, when the final groupings were finishing up, he tweeted a video of himself on the driving range. The caption read: “Still in one piece.”

Josh Berhow

Golf.com Editor

Josh Berhow is the managing editor at GOLF.com. The Minnesota native graduated with a journalism degree from Minnesota State University in Mankato. You can reach him at joshua_berhow@golf.com.