KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Brooks Koepka has once again found his major stride – even with a slight hobble.
Bouncing back from consecutive mental mistakes on his opening hole, Koepka carded six birdies Thursday and grabbed a share of the early lead at the PGA Championship. He finished the day two back of Corey Conners, who fired a 67 in the afternoon.
Though he’s dominated the majors like none other over the past four years, it was still a surprise to see Koepka’s name near the top of the board. He’s just two months removed from his latest injury – a dislocated right kneecap – that required surgery in mid-March. Defying doctors, he rushed back in time to play the Masters but stood little competitive chance, struggling just to walk all of the hills at Augusta National. He wound up having the weekend off, ending a streak of 24 consecutive cuts made in the majors.
After enduring a long month of rehab and training, Koepka felt strong enough to return last week at the AT&T Byron Nelson, where he missed the cut and showed few glimpses of major readiness. Nevertheless, he showed up here and declared himself “a million times better” than Augusta, then played like it in the opening round at Kiawah Island.
On his opening hole, Koepka made back-to-back miscalculations – a 3-wood off the tee that he thought could cover the sand (it did not), then a full-bore sand wedge from a bad lie that he tried to advance up by the green (thinned it into the slope 7 feet in front of him).
“Didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “Deserved every bit of that double bogey. But it helped me refocus. I can’t play with any mistakes, maybe one a day, and that was my one, and I got it out of the way the first hole. Just had to be real careful and watch what I was doing.”
Koepka nearly played blemish-free the rest of the day, save for a bogey on the 15th hole when his tee shot found one of the dunes wide right of the fairway. He hit just five fairways but led the field in approach play, gaining more than three strokes on the field.
“I drove it so poorly today,” said Koepka, who outplayed both of his fellow playing competitors, Justin Thomas (75) and Rory McIlroy (75). “I’ve got to figure it out because, if I don’t figure it out, I won’t be there Sunday or have a chance.”
Entering the PGA, Koepka was an astonishing 47 strokes better in the majors than any other player since 2017. His opening 69 here was his 32nd major round in the 60s – eight more than any other player during that span.
And so listening to Koepka afterward, it was as if he’d never suffered the setback. He spoke confidently, with that typical touch of dismissiveness.
On whether the round of 69 helped his confidence: “I felt like I already had confidence.”
On turning it on at the majors: “It’s a major. I’m going to show up.”
On if he feels under the radar this week: “I haven’t paid attention. I’m more focused on my knee than I am anything that anybody else is doing. I’ve been in my own little world.”
Koepka finished his interview and strode out of the media tent, brushing past a waiting Bryson DeChambeau with barely an acknowledgement. Indeed, it looked, sounded and felt like the return of big, bad Brooks, all the way down to the low score.