PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The twisting and picturesque fairways of Pebble Beach weren’t supposed to be Brooks Koepka’s brand of vodka.
This wasn’t Bethpage Black, where Koepka powered his way to his fourth major in his last eight major starts, or Erin Hills, where he won his first major on wide, welcoming fairways. Yet after an eventful first round there he was perched just four strokes off the lead.
Maybe this is the ultimate chip for a player who relishes the role of being the overlooked superstar. Although he’d mentioned a promotional spot for this week’s championship that didn’t include him as a perceived slight, perhaps the real fuel comes from the idea that this wasn’t supposed to be his kind of course.
It certainly didn’t look that way early in his round when the two-time defending champion birdied four of his first six holes to move to within a stroke of the early lead.
There were hiccups coming in – a missed green at No. 8 that bounced hard and into the hay, a wayward drive at No. 13 and a tee shot at the iconic 17th hole that airmailed the green. They all led to bogeys and added up to a 2-under 69 that was four shots off the pace set by Justin Rose.
“It's a battle if you're not going to hit fairways. If you're not going to hit greens, it's going to be tough,” said Koepka, who hit just seven of 14 greens in regulation. “I'm actually quite pleased.”
If that doesn’t exactly sound like the guy who is on the verge of becoming the first player in over a century to win three consecutive U.S. Opens, it’s yet another indication that Koepka is not a machine despite his often-stoic demeanor.
The best evidence of this came at the par-5 closing hole when Koepka pushed his 3-wood off the tee well right of the fairway and opted to play his second shot off a cart path. As he made his way to the green a group of fans cheered from one of the palatial homes along the fairway.
“I was trying to hit your house,” he said with a smile.
Koepka has learned in an amazingly short amount of time the ebb and flow of major championship golf and that if your worst day is under par, particularly at a U.S. Open, you’re doing fine.
“I would have liked to have shot a couple more. But considering how I hit it coming in, I'm pretty pleased,” he said. “I didn't shoot myself out of it. I'm right there. I feel like if I get out tomorrow and get off to a good start, I'm right back into it.”
He’s earned this calmness honestly. He was tied for 33rd after Day 1 last year at the PGA Championship and tied for 46th after his first 18 at the ’18 U.S. Open on his way to victory at both. By comparison his tie for 16th at Pebble Beach probably feels like a reason to sleep easy.
He might not have started his week like some would have expected, but he’s still on pace to finish exactly where one would imagine.