FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – After dusting the Masters champion by 17 shots, after setting a new 36-hole major scoring record and after cracking open a seven-stroke lead at Bethpage Black, Brooks Koepka wasn’t satisfied. Spotting his swing coach, Claude Harmon III, while on his way to the scoring tent, Koepka told him: “We’re going straight to the range. I’m not hitting it that good.”
He could have fooled the rest of the field here at the PGA.
Koepka followed up his course-record 63 with a stout 65 Friday, the beginning of what feels like another coronation. At 12-under 128, he set the mark for the lowest 36-hole score in major championship history. And he joined Henry Cotton (1934 Open) as the only players since 1900 to lead by seven or more shots at the halfway point of a major.
Historic stuff, and, um, he’s not hitting it well?
“This probably sounds bad,” Koepka said afterward, “but today was a battle.”
Yes, such a battle that Koepka once again led the field in strokes gained: tee to green. Such a battle that he ranked fourth in driving distance, at 307.7 yards. Such a battle that he hit 10 of 14 fairways and 15 greens – better stats, in fact, than during his flawless 63 in the opening round. But, sure: “I didn’t strike it that good. I was leaking a few to the right.”
At least Koepka was true to his word. After finishing his media obligations, there he was, back on the range with Harmon and caddie Ricky Elliott, pounding away on his nuclear driver. It was a brief session, less than a half hour, and he departed with a smile. All good here.
On Saturday afternoon, Jordan Spieth will have the unenviable task of going head-to-head with King Koepka, and even the fellow three-time major winner admitted that he can’t plan on Koepka ever coming back to the field. There’s a reason for that: Koepka is now a combined 67 under in the majors since the 2016 PGA – a whopping 24 shots better than any other player during that stretch.
“All major championships are a good fit for Brooks,” Harmon said. “He likes the situation. He likes being under pressure.” And he’s learned, through experience, a valuable lesson. Before the final round of last year’s PGA, Koepka and Harmon were having breakfast when the TV commentators discussed how some of the pursuers – including Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas – could put pressure on the leader.
Hearing that, Koepka said, “The only person who can put pressure on me is me. Pressure is self-inflicted.” That day at Bellerive, he stayed in his own bubble, withstood Woods’ birdie binge and fired a 66 of his own to capture his third major in his past six starts.
Here at Bethpage, Woods didn’t give the rowdy New York fans much to cheer about – he missed the cut, by one – but Koepka wouldn’t have noticed anyway. Koepka watched Woods’ ball flight and listened to the contact to make his own club selections – but that’s about it. He was intensely focused on his own game, nothing else.
And so it didn’t even register that Koepka blew the newly minted Masters champion off the map. Maybe Woods wasn’t feeling his best. Maybe he was rusty after more than a month away. Still: Koepka beat Woods by 17 shots. He could have spotted him four shots a side ... and still won.
Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, wasn’t on the bag for his boss’ prime, but to him, the similarities were striking.
“It does remind me of the same kind of deal,” LaCava said. “Destroy the par 5s, and then make more birdies than the other guys can because you’re hitting one or two less clubs into the longish par 4s.”
Said Woods: “He’s got 9-irons when most of us are hitting 5-irons and 4-irons, and he’s putting well. That adds up to a pretty substantial lead, and if he keeps doing what he’s doing, there’s no reason why he can’t build on this lead.”
And so Koepka’s main challenger over the weekend isn’t Spieth, or Adam Scott, or even his fellow bash brother, Dustin Johnson.
It’s Koepka himself.
On the many occasions Woods staked himself to such a massive lead, he wanted to step on his opponents’ necks, grow the advantage, make it a demoralizing blowout.
“Brooks is in the same vein, for sure,” Harmon said.
Thus the early-evening range session.
“He wants to make sure he can get this thing in a good position so that he’s ready for the next two days,” Harmon said. “Let me tell you, the last thing he’s thinking right now is that this thing is over. He never thinks like that.”
Funny, because everyone else is.