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Peerless for so long, Woods now has bona fide peer in Koepka

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – The relative calm of a Thursday morning was shattered as Tiger Woods’ opening tee shot climbed into a perfectly clear sky.

“Yo, Tygah, you da man!”

Long Island majors always bring out a different kind of golf fan but a Bethpage major is a visual and audio break from the game’s normal decorum. This is not one of your run-of-the-mill, white-collar enclaves like Shinnecock or Winged Foot, this is gritty and gauche. This is New York unfiltered.

“It’s not the Rydah Cup, Molinari!”

While Woods was the undisputed marquee of a threesome that included defending PGA champion Brooks Koepka and reigning Open Championship winner Francesco Molinari, whose faux pas off the first tee was a wayward drive followed by a provisional attempt, the Bethpage fish bowl meant that nothing was off limits.

“You’re gonna love it, Tygah. Don’t even look up.”

Woods didn’t love anything about his opening hole after pushing his tee shot into the rough right of the 10th fairway which was followed by a layup, a wedge that airmailed the green and a chip that ran well wide of the hole. Lucas Glover also started his week at the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage with a double bogey and still won, but we can all agree it’s not the preferred method.

“Didn't get off to a very good start,” Woods said. “It was a good drive and ended up in a bad spot, and I compounded the problem with trying to use the backboard behind the hole there and missing a putt I should have made.”

Woods’ opening double bogey put him in the unenviable position of playing catch up on a course that doesn’t lend itself to the rally.

“Stick with it, Tygah.”

Giving up really isn’t Woods’ thing and he did what he’s almost always done and turned a 75 into a 72, but in the process the mayhem from the masses turned its focus to Koepka. 

While Woods was making a mess of things Koepka quietly plodded his way to birdies at Nos. 10 and 14 and was four strokes clear of the Masters champion by the time the trio trudged across Round Swamp Road. 

“You’ve got big muscles!”

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Initially it was a grudging respect from the mob but with each towering drive and deftly played approach shot the outspoken came around to Koepka, cheering each drive like it was a 513-foot Aaron Judge homerun.

This was his honor and the heir apparent with Koepka doing what’s become exceedingly easy for him.

“Win another one, Brooksie!”

Koepka’s father, Bob, craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the action sporting a “Koepka get No. 2” button. Technically, this would be his son’s second PGA Championship victory, but a more telling statistic would be his fourth triumph in his last eight starts in a major. A .500 batting average is the kind of math the former second baseman could easily wrap his mind around.

Since winning the 2017 U.S. Open, Koepka is a combined 52 under par on the game’s hardest golf courses and against the toughest fields. He has 21 rounds under par in that span and a 69.03 stroke average. 

There will be those who dismiss the quality of his accomplishments based on a perceived lack of quality at some of those major venues but that’s as misguided as it is misinformed.

It was just last year at the PGA Championship when Koepka held off Woods to win by two strokes and, with apologies to the small sample size, it appeared as if the two were playing a different game on Thursday.

“He hit a couple loose tee shots today that ended up in good spots, but I think that was probably the highest score he could have shot today,” Woods said of his playing partner. “He left a few out there with a couple putts that he missed. But it could have easily been a couple better.”

Koepka regularly outdrove Woods at Bethpage, like on the 12th hole when the 29-year-old launched a drive nearly 30 yards past the elder statesman of the group. He also played Tiger’s game better than Tiger did, at least on Thursday, with a field-leading 3.71 strokes gained in approach shots to the green.

“It was great that Tiger won Augusta, but I mean, we're at a new week now,” said Koepka, whose 7-under total matches the combined winning totals of the last two major champions at Bethpage (Woods was 3 under when he won the ’02 U.S. Open on the Black Course and Glover was 4 under in ’09). “You know what you're going to get when you play with him. I mean, obviously everybody in New York is going to be cheering for him, and it's going to be loud, especially if he makes a putt. You've just got to keep battling and find a way to get through it.”

Koepka finished his day with a bogey-free 63 to tie the tournament record and best the Bethpage record by a stroke. Woods was nine shots back and tied for 70th place when he completed his round.

“New York still loves ya, Tygah!”

Regardless of scorecards, New Yorkers love winners and Woods is squarely back in the winning column, although his Day 1 effort strongly suggests it’s probably not going to happen this week. But they also appreciate winning performances like Koepka’s workmanlike card.

This wasn’t a passing of the torch moment, Woods has far too much golf left in him for that, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the player who for so long was peerless now has a bona fide peer.