Tiger Woods’ victory in the Masters a month ago was a sporting earthquake.
Brooks Koepka made Bethpage Black history Thursday in the 101st PGA Championship, and it was as if the golf world felt a slight bump in the night and turned over to go back to sleep.
The 29-year-old has become a majors monster, dominating them the way Woods once did, but with a fraction of the fanfare.
Koepka has won three of the game’s biggest titles in less than two years, and made No. 4 a very real possibility by shooting a seven-under 63 that gave him a one-shot lead over 28-year-old Danny Lee.
Koepka’s 63 marked or matched plenty of high standards. The previous low score at 83-year-old Bethpage Black was 64, and with Koepka also carding 63 in last year’s PGA, he joined Vijay Singh and Greg Norman as the only players to notch that score twice in majors.
Koepka displayed his power and an unusually deft putting touch while his playing partner, Woods, made a pair of double bogeys and struggled on the greens in shooting a two-over 72 that left him nine shots back.
Starting the morning on the 10th hole, Koepka’s tee shot found the fairway and, after he muscled a 200-yard five-iron onto the green, drained a 40-foot putt for one of only seven birdies on the day there.
Woods’ drive found the rough, and after slashing out to the fairway, his approach went long into the deep grass, leading to a double bogey.
One hole in, Koepka led Woods by three.
Koepka, who had to overcome raucous cheering for Woods in the final round to win last year’s PGA at Bellerive in St. Louis, insisted rather convincingly that he didn’t pay much attention to the hype surrounding Woods in his first round since the Masters.
“You know what you’re doing to get when you play with him,” Koepka said. “Obviously, everybody in New York is going to be cheering for him and it’s going to be loud, especially when he makes a putt. You’ve just got to keep battling and find a way to get through it.”
Koepka put on a relentless display, with three birdies on Bethpage’s more difficult back nine, followed by four birdies on the other side, capped with a 32-foot make on his last hole.
Woods, who is 14 years Koepka’s senior, could only marvel.
“He hit a couple of loose tee shots that ended up in good spots, but I think that was probably the highest score he could have shot today,” Woods said.
Crazy, but true. Koepka didn’t birdie either of the course’s par fives, handcuffed by a bad hook into the rough at the 516-yard fourth and a drive that found a bunker on 13.
Throw in a seven-foot miss for birdie at No. 11 and it seems possible Koepka could have blitzed the all-time majors scoring record of eight-under 62, recorded by Branden Grace in the 2017 British Open.
“That would have been nice to shoot 60,” Koepka said with a slight smile.
The average score in the first round at Bethpage was 73.04, or 10 strokes worse than Koepka.
“This is such a tough golf course,” said Paul Casey, who shot 70. “Brooks has played an unbelievable round of golf — displayed how good he can be, how good he is.”
In his run through the majors — only 22 starts — Koepka has been characterized as a man with a large chip on his shoulder because he doesn’t get the attention he may deserve.
That story line can’t last, given his dominance, and the fact that Koepka said Thursday his confidence is at an all-time high. Earlier in the week, he admitted he had a number in his head for how many majors he could win.
“I don’t see why you can’t get to double digits,” Koepka had said matter-of-factly. “I think you keep doing what you’re supposed to do, play good, you peak at the right times.
“I think sometimes the majors are the easiest ones to win. Half the people shoot themselves out of it, and mentally, I know I can beat most of them.”
If Patrick Reed had said that after winning last year’s Masters, he’d have been roasted like a marshmallow by players and the media. But few are going to argue with the guy who won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 2017-18, becoming only the second man to do so in 66 years.
“I think over the last couple of years it’s something that everyone has gotten used to,” said Rickie Fowler, who overcame a double-bogey on his first hole to score 69.
Fowler, however, somewhat bristled when asked how close he’d have to be to catch Koepka come Sunday.
“What makes you think he’s going to be leading?” Fowler responded. “I would say there’s no lead really safe here. You start hitting it sideways or you get out of position, things can do different ways quick.”
Fowler also offered the platitude, “The tournament can’t be won on Thursday and Friday.”