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PGA Championship: Brooks Koepka an architect of his own fortune at Bethpage Black

Brooks Koepka reads the greens on No. 9

Brooks Koepka reads the greens on No. 9 during the first round of the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black on Thursday, May 16, 2019.  Credit: James Escher

Big, strong, imposing, impressive. That is a description of either Brooks Koepka or Bethpage Black. It fits both ways and appropriately because the two are now historically tied.

Never before in the 83-year history of one of America’s most famous golf courses had anyone shot 63, as Koepka did Thursday in the first round of the PGA Championship. It was two-way serendipity: If you’re going to hold a course record, you might as well have it on a layout that is considered an absolute brute. If you could pick a golfer to hold your course record, you would choose a major figure on top of the game.

What a perfect match.

This is not to say that Koepka is a cinch to defend the title he won at Bellerive in St. Louis last August. It is only one round and he leads by only one, over Danny Lee. But the course and the man sure passed the kinship eye test on Thursday.

That is just as former PGA Tour pro Marc Turnesa of Rockville Centre had predicted last week. A friend of Koepka and a Long Island native, he knows both halves of the equation and said they would see eye to eye.

“It’s not hard,” Turnesa said in a text after Koepka made seven birdies and no bogeys. “He’s the best player in the field. He’s as good or better in every facet of the game, and Bethpage is a great test.”

Koepka, speaking in his own matter-of-fact way, said it was probably the best round he has had as a pro golfer. The tougher the challenge, the more he likes it. He had the burdensome task of starting on the punishing 10th hole rather than the benign first. He responded with a birdie, which he later said was the biggest moment in his round (in contrast to the double-bogey made there by one of his playing companions, Tiger Woods).

Here is an interesting thing about Koepka, though. He is not just a workman grinder with eyes only on a result. He appreciates a nice scene, a well sculpted hole.

Koepka, winner of two of the past four majors, is a course architect-in-the-making. He was chosen to work with one of the game’s great designers, Tom Doak, to turn Houston’s Memorial Park, a public course, into the new site for the Houston Open.

“A lot of his suggestions for the course have been subtle things, like creating more undulation in the landing areas.  He says for players in his peer group, an approach shot from a sidehill lie out of the rough is much more difficult to control than being in a bunker,” Doak said in an email.

“Though he does not show much emotion while playing, Brooks has also been very focused on making the finishing holes exciting for the fans:  we have two potentially drivable par-4's, and a couple of greens guarded by water on multiple sides. You’re not going to win there making a bunch of safe pars,” said the architect/author whose credits include Sebonack and a redesign of North Shore Country Club. 

For Koepka on Thursday, his scorecard was not the most memorable sight.

“This place is just beautiful. You stand on every tee and you kind of get sucked in, mesmerized by the design of this golf course,” he said. “It’s just very pleasing to the eye. Every time you step  up on every tee box, there’s a side to miss it and there’s a side where you can’t miss it. It makes it very difficult if you’re not going to drive the ball well. It definitely tests every part of your game, that’s for sure.”

The reigning PGA champion passed every test on Day One. And if Bethpage Black could talk, it would say similarly nice things about him.

As it is, they are completely connected and will stay that way until someone shoots 62. Then again, at this rate, Koepka is the best bet to do that.

Before Brooks Koepka's 63, five golfers shared the Bethpage Black course record of 64. Lee's 64 came after Koepka finished his round.

Player Year Event

Craig Thomas 2007 New York State Open

Lucas Glover 2009 U.S. Open

Mike Weir 2009 U.S. Open

Padraig Harrington The Barclays 2012

Cameron Young (amateur) 2017 New York State Open

Danny Lee 2019 PGA Championship

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