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Over already? Koepka chasers warn: still three rounds to play ... at Bethpage

Brooks Koepka at the 2019 PGA Championship
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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – After eviscerating the Black Course in the morning hours on Thursday, Brooks Koepka played nice.

Rather than puff out his chest about a record-setting round, rather than double down on his confident remarks from earlier in the week about how majors are easier to win, Koepka opened the door to the possibility that others might soon join him in besting Bethpage.

“The only thing you have to do is hit fairways. If you’re going to hit fairways, you’re going to be able to hit the greens and get the ball close to the hole,” Koepka said. “So you can definitely shoot a number. Some of these hole locations I think are quite gettable. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see another good score in the afternoon.”

Of course, this is somewhat like Giannis Antetokounmpo explaining the ease with which one can go from the half-court line to the hoop in three strides. It helps to be 7 feet tall or, in Koepka’s case, possess something of a secret sauce when it comes to bending major championship venues to their knees.

“It’s normal now, isn’t it?” said Adam Scott. “The last two years, we shouldn’t be surprised now. Obviously he’s the man in form at the majors, so we’ve all got our work cut out trying to catch him.”

With the gauntlet thrown down before them, and a 63 on the board before they even put a ball in play, the afternoon wave certainly faced an uphill battle. And while Danny Lee managed to turn heads with a 64 to move into second place, the stars of the second shift scored like Bethpage was still hosting U.S. Opens.

Seen as one of the pre-tournament favorites, Rory McIlroy carded a lone birdie en route to a 72. Bryson DeChambeau matched that total, while Jon Rahm had a topsy-turvy 70.

The decorated group at 1 under, including the likes of Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day, can take heart in the fact that only three players shot better than 68. The problems begin once they scroll up and see Koepka’s name atop the standings, with a four-shot cushion over everyone not named Lee.

“That was a heck of a round,” admitted Mickelson. “But you just can’t get caught up in that. Because it’s such a difficult test that if you don’t stay in the moment, you’ll make a big number.”

PGA Championship: Scores | Full coverage

Mickelson’s observation was a common refrain among the chase pack, as by and large players still in the mix leaned on two notions: that the Black Course is as difficult as its famed warning sign would indicate, and that no lead is safe when there are still 54 holes to go.

“The funny thing is, you never know where Brooks could be at the end of the week,” said Day, who birdied three of his last eight holes to join only 15 other players under par. “He could be outside the top 10, outside the top 20, just depending on how he plays the next few days.”

Koepka’s round was lauded by playing competitor Tiger Woods, who noted that a course record-setting 63 was “probably the highest score he could have shot today.” And the performance was nothing short of remarkable, the only bogey-free effort turned in on a brutish layout. 

But the defending champ also got a few breaks to go his way. Koepka bookended his round with birdie makes from 40 and 33 feet while also rolling in a 10-footer to save par on No. 6. After hooking his drive miles left on the par-5 fourth, he was able to hack it out of thick rough to just short of the green and save another par.

The Black Course didn’t bite him on Thursday, but those in closest pursuit know that it’s only a matter of time. Around here, no one leaves unscathed.

“It’s Bethpage. I feel like there’s going to be more bogeys than birdies out here,” Day said. “So it’s the first day, and we’ve just got to be patient with ourselves. There’s a lot of golf to be played, especially for the guys at the top of the leaderboard and the guys that are just trying to make the cut or in the middle.”

Speaking to reporters earlier in the week, Koepka flashed the well-earned bravado that you’d expect from a player who has won three of the last eight majors he’s played. He emphasized the fact that he still has the Wanamaker Trophy in his possession, and that it’s up to the rest of the field to snatch it from his grasp.

After a stellar opener, Koepka has made it clear that he’s not in any hurry to hand over the hardware. But even with a formidable foe at the top, the players within reach have no plans to give up their pursuit. Sooner or later, Bethpage will land some punches on the current heavyweight champ. 

The others just hope to still be standing when it happens.

“You can play tremendous golf one day and then wake up the next day and not know where it’s going. That’s just how golf is,” Day said. “I think he’s playing some tremendous golf, especially coming off last week and playing some good golf at Augusta. There’s a lot of good momentum for him. But golf is just kind of a finicky game when it comes to playing one day and then waking up the next day and having no idea how to play.”