PGA Championship - Preview Day 3

SAN FRANCISCO – Every major championship represents history waiting to happen, and many players get so wound up they don’t come close to performing at their peak. There’s one golfer, though, who treats golf’s biggest stages as if they were a Tuesday practice round at home. 

Brooks Koepka, a four-time major champion who already owns two PGA Championship trophies, is that man, and simply put, he’s built and wired differently than the others. He considers the majors to be the easiest tournaments to win, and his comfort level at them is staggering. Koepka, 30, owns more major titles (four) than regular PGA Tour victories (three). Seeking a three-peat at the 102nd PGA Championship (something not accomplished since Walter Hagen won four consecutive PGAs in match play nearly a century ago), Koepka shot 4-under 66 in docile morning conditions Thursday, and, ho hum, finds himself back near the top of another major leaderboard. 

He trails only Jason Day, the 2015 PGA champion from Australia who is trying to work his way back into the form that made him World No. 1, and Brendon Todd, a two-time winner in 2019-20 who is making his first appearance at the PGA Championship in five years. Both players shot 5-under 65, Todd’s round coming in the late afternoon, when the winds finally started whipping and conditions toughened.  

What would making golf history at the PGA Championship mean to Koepka

“It would mean extra because I wasn't able to do it at the U.S. Open (in 2019). I think that drove me nuts a little bit,” Koepka said. “I mean, obviously I played about as good … I played good golf, but I just got beat by Gary (Woodland). You know, to do it here, it would be special. I think there's, what, six guys that have ever won three (majors) in a row? Yeah, not a bad list to be on. That's the whole goal every time we tee it up in a major, is to win them.”

Day, 32, is no stranger to success at the PGA Championship – he won the Wanamaker Trophy at Whistling Straits in 2015, setting a scoring record (20 under par) in the process. Slowed by a balky back, Day slowly has been working his way into form, arriving to Harding Park on the heels of three consecutive top-10 PGA Tour finishes. 

“I feel like I've been working very hard in the off weeks and especially when I come to a tournament, to be able to get my putting back to where it is, because it's always been a strength of mine,” Day said. “I feel like the game is slowly coming around, the confidence is coming around because I'm starting to see the results, which has been good.”

Todd, 35, is in the midst of an incredible comeback season. In 2016-18, he made 45 starts on the PGA Tour and survived only five cuts. He lost his long game. This season, after missing the cut in his first four starts, he went on a tear. Todd won back-to-back events in Bermuda and Mexico and has been in contention to add a third title. He had to two-putt from 66 feet at the par-4 ninth, his finishing hole, making a 10-footer from above the hole to save par. Momentum-wise, it was a big putt. 

“It was lights-out today,” said Todd, who needed only 24 putts. “I couldn't have putted any better, there's no doubt, and I did this last week (in Memphis). The first round, I had a lights-out day putting, and you know, again, I've always watched guys shoot those low opening rounds and it's really just the guys who are confident. Week-in, week-out, their games are rolling. It's nice to be able to do that.

The 102nd PGA Championship was far quieter than normal; no fans were allowed to attend because of Covid-19 precautions. It was odd to have Tiger Woods announced on the 10th tee, his four triumphant PGA years echoing from a podium – “Winner of the PGA Championship in 1999, 2000, 2006, and 2007…” – and have those words met with fourth-floor library-level silence. Fans would have enjoyed the theater on Thursday. Harding Park came in with a heavyweight reputation, but on a day that stayed calm until mid-afternoon, yielded plenty of birdies and a handful of eagles. All holed in silence.

“That's definitely different,” said two-time PGA champion Rory McIlroy, who played alongside Woods. “We've got used to it. That's the way it's going to be for the foreseeable future, unfortunately, and yeah, at this point, everyone I think has adapted and got used to the environment that we are playing in.”

After three really difficult practice round days, where strong, cold winds whistled across the grounds at TPC Harding Park, Thursday welcomed golfers with Chamber of Commerce hospitality. The wind was down below 10 mph, the greens were receptive, and birdies were plentiful. Koepka made six in all, but also encountered two bogeys. Day’s card was blemish-free, and included a birdie at the difficult, 518-yard par-4 ninth (his final hole) when he ripped a 4-iron from 213 yards out that settled 6 feet from the flagstick. The approach was too good to waste. Birdie. Todd had seven birdies, and shot 3-under 32 on his incoming nine.  

Nine players finished the round at 66, including seasoned major winners Martin Kaymer, Zach Johnson, Justin Rose and Koepka. Tiger Woods, trying to hunt down his 15th major title and fifth PGA (which would tie Hagen and Jack Nicklaus), opened with 2-under 68. 

“It was fun to see the golf course like that, to be honest with you,” Rose said. When Rose did miss a fairway, he was wise enough to be smart, pitch out, and take his medicine, trying to make pars the hard way. “I kind of felt like it was a very disciplined major championship-style round of golf early, just respecting the golf course. As well as knowing that it was ‘gettable,’ I also kind of respected that you had to play smart golf, too.”

Koepka used a rare weekend off after missing the cut at the 3M Open two weeks ago to work on his long game with instructors Pete Cowen and Claude Harmon III over two days at home in Florida. The first session didn’t start well, with Koepka not striking the ball well and tossing a couple of clubs in frustration (“I was pretty heated,” he said.)

Eventually, Koepka hit shots off a mat that measured his weight distribution. Koepka, who has struggled with an injured left knee that may need surgery after his season, noticed that he was hanging on his right side, and not getting his weight shifted over to his left side at impact. His swing has been much better since the discovery. He saw plenty of good signs last week in Memphis (where he tied for second), watched some footage of his major victories with caddie Ricky Elliott, then boarded his flight to San Francisco buoyed by extra confidence. Brooks Koepka, armed with extra confidence? Why, that’s not promising news for the rest of the field. 

“I mean, it's only 18 holes right now,” Koepka said Thursday afternoon. “I feel good. I feel confident. I'm excited for the next three days. I think I can definitely play a lot better, and just need to tidy a few things up, and we'll be there come Sunday on the back nine.”

At majors, that’s his usual drill.

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