After winning three of the past eight major golf championships, Brooks Koepka sometimes has wondered why his accomplishments haven’t taken his public profile to a level equivalent with his play. So, when given the opportunity to share golf’s biggest stage with 15-time major champion Tiger Woods for the first two rounds of the 101st PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, Koepka embraced it with a performance that fairly shouted, “Can you see me now?”
On Friday, Koepka followed his opening course-record 63 with a 5-under-par 65 that put him at 12-under 128, which is the all-time record low 36-hole score for all four major championships. His seven-stroke lead over second-place Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth set the 36-hole record for the PGA.
If there were a rule that cut the 156-player field to only those within 10 strokes of the leader, the tournament would be down to 18 players for the final two rounds. As for Woods, he finished at 5-over, missing the cut by a shot and trailing Koepka by 17 for their two days together.
Watching Koepka, the 43-year-old Woods couldn’t help but be reminded of a young Tiger in his prime. “What Brooksy did, he’s driving it 330 yards in the middle of the fairway,” Woods said. “He’s got 9-irons when most of us are hitting 5-irons, 4-irons, and he’s putting well. That adds up to a pretty substantial lead, and if he keeps doing what he’s doing, there’s no reason why he can’t build on this lead.
“When he did miss the fairway, he missed it far enough down there where he still was able to hit wedges and 9-irons on the green…You know, relative to the field, I was about that long early in my career.”
That last wistful comment felt as if Woods understands golf’s new generation has produced a player who may well replace him as the most dominant force in the game. But Koepka stayed humble, deflecting any talk of the torch being passed from Woods to him at Bethpage.
“I mean, I’ve got 12 more to go before that happens,” Koepka said referring to the number of majors he must win yet just to tie Woods.
At the same time, Koepka admitted how much he enjoyed sharing the spotlight with Woods. “The crowds are definitely lively,” Koepka said. “I enjoy them cheering for him, the energy they bring. It’s always fun to play with him and play in front of a large crowd and kind of showcase your stuff.”
Before Koepka teed off in the afternoon, he could see Spieth shot 66 to reach 5-under to pull within two strokes of his lead. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson had a 67 to reach a 4-under total. Then, in the afternoon, Scott got it going with a brilliant 64 to join Spieth at 5 under.
But Koepka was in total control. He teed off on No. 1 and birdied three of his first four holes and extended his streak of holes without a bogey to 27 before making his first slip at No. 10. Koepka then made three more birdies before a three-putt bogey at the par-3 17th but capped his round with his seventh birdie of the day at No. 18.
“This probably sounds bad, but today was a battle,” Koepka said. “I didn’t strike it that good. The way I hung in there today and battled it was probably more impressive than yesterday, not having your ‘A’ game but still being able to shoot a great score. I was very, very pleased with the way I played today.”
Koepka admitted watching the scoreboard as he marched far ahead of the field. “I’d like to see that lead grow as large as it possibly can,” Koepka said.
The task facing Koepka’s pursuers is daunting. Scott expects the tees go back so the course plays longer the final two rounds. “There won’t be a lot of attacking when they drop the tees back,” Scott said. “It will be just, can you hit the green? If there’s no more rain, it could get a little firmer. That’s going to require some really great golf, and when you’re behind, I just can’t afford to make any errors. You can accept a bogey but probably not more than one a day the next couple days.”