Will anyone catch Brooks Koepka? Here are the most intriguing options
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Take heart, golf fans: It ain’t over. Yes, Brooks Koepka is once again threatening to snuff the life out of a major championship, but there are reasons to keep watching. It was only last month that Koepka let the Masters get away on the back-nine, drowning a ball in Rae’s Creek and missing very makable birdie putts on the final two holes. The man is human after all, and if he goes backward even a little plenty of intriguing players are in position to capitalize. And they are…
Danny Lee (64, one shot back): Lee, 28, has long been known as an extravagantly talented underachiever. To wit, he has enjoyed only one top 10 this season before his stunning opening round at Bethpage. It was 10 long years ago that Lee lit up the golf world by taking the Johnny Walker Classic as an amateur. In the decade since he has won only once, at the 2015 Greenbrier. Lee is candid that he has struggled at times to stay positive in the face of so much disappointment.
“Some of the top 20 guys in the world make it look easy, but it’s not always fairy-tales and unicorns out here,” he says, with his typically refreshing candor. “And when you are fighting for your Tour card every year… how would you feel when you lose your job tomorrow? And you put a lot of effort into it. You’ve tried your best, and you did everything you could do, and you don’t have a job tomorrow. That’s the same feeling we have.I know it’s a dream-chasing work, and I’m grateful and happy to be out here and happy for my opportunities out here, but it’s not taking baby from candy out here.”
A year and a half ago Lee began working with golf’s speed merchant, George Gankas, and this one-time short hitter has now added enough yardage off the tee to feel like he can compete with the big boys. “That was actually the first time I actually got to play in a major with this distance,” he said following the first round. “I’m actually interested in myself what I can do out there this week.”
In only his 10th career major can he somehow produce the victory that would erase all those unmet expectations? Probably not, but it would be a helluva story.
Tommy Fleetwood (67, four shots back): Here we go again, with yet another duel between big, bad Brooks and wee Tommy Lad. As Fleetwood said following his round,”He’s a lot bigger than me and he hits it a bit further. He’s got a bigger bone balance.” But they have a similar penchant for raising their games during the majors, though Fleetwood is looking for his first win. Still, he was feeling frisky after making six birdies in his first round: “I hit plenty of good golf shots. Felt like I putted really well, like I holed out really well. Felt very accepting out there, and just overall had a good day.” Fleetwood is slowly moving up the unofficial ranking of Best Player Never To Have Won A Major. One of these weeks he’s finally going to trump Koepka. This could be the one.
Rickie Fowler (69, six shots back): Here we go again…again. This is Fowler’s first season as a thirty-something, so he is no longer saddled with the expectations that come with being a phenom. Instead, the general sentiment has metastasized into something worse: acceptance. His tie for 9th at this year’s Masters was Fowler’s 10th career top 10 in the majors, but no one is getting too worked up about a potential Fowler breakthrough, and maybe this reset will work to his advantage. Fowler drew a bad break in his opening round, having to begin on the brutal 10th hole in the chilly early morning. He promptly made a double bogey but never stopped grinding.
“You just accept it,” he said of that opening kick in the teeth. “You’re not going to get any shots back. A lot of people say, Go get it back. No, it’s a 6 on the card and it’s staying there. Try and start piecing swing after swing together and try and build some momentum…It’s very rewarding when you can come back from a bad start.” That last bit could be shorthand for his career so far. The lingering question is, how rich will his reward turn out to be?
Dustin Johnson (69, six shots back): Poor DJ. Koepka used to be his harmless sidekick, and now the script has flipped so dramatically that Johnson’s shortcomings are being thrown into sharp relief by his workout buddy’s relentless excellence. Last year at the U.S. Open, just down the road at Shinnecock, they were paired together for the final round and Koepka gave his pal a merciless beating, dramatically altering the dynamics of their relationship. Will Dustin ever punch back? That remains one of the game’s most vexing questions.
Matt Wallace (69, six shots back): The 29 year-old Englishman has quietly won four times on the European Tour over the last two years, including twice in sudden-death. The son of a professional rugby player, Wallace has a jock swagger that is eerily familiar. “He’s almost as cocky as Koepka,” says one Euro tour insider. On Thursday he birded three of the first four holes and afterward was still crowing about it: “Going to shoot 59 in the first four holes, I felt like. I was playing great, and really enjoyed being out there and kind of felt calm and chilled and just happy.” Three straight bogeys around the turn tested Wallace’s equanimity; a passionate player who has been know to “lose the head,” Wallace fought hard to get in the house under par. Now the man who is 10th on the Euro tour in birdies per round must press forward.
Can anyone catch Koepka? It’s a big ask. Asked about this on Thursday, Fowler offered some fighting words that should offer a glimmer of hope to the rest of the field: “What makes you think he’s going to be leading? I would say there’s no lead really safe here. You start hitting it sideways or you get out of position, things can go different ways quickly. I mean, you can make bogeys and doubles out here very quickly. I don’t think anything is safe.”