HOYLAKE, England – There was a pause in the Round 1 action Thursday at Royal Liverpool as officials had to wait . . . and wait . . . and wait for Brooks Koepka’s ball to come to a complete stop at the 528-yard, par-5 fifth.
Launched high and explosively into the English air, the first of Koepka’s two shots struck with a driver took a while to come down and then to stop rolling. “He hit it over 400 yards,” said caddie Ricky Elliott. “He hit a wedge in there.”
But hold the applause and offer a yawn. It was a par 5, after all, and at Royal Liverpool there’s a golden rule: You want to contend, you’d better beat up on the four scoring chances, three of them on the back. Koepka handled the assignment nicely, with birdies at the fifth, 16th and 18th en route to a 4-under 68 – two off Rory McIlroy’s clubhouse lead – but again, muffle the excitement.
Playing the par 5s well here isn’t a challenge. It’s a prerequisite, even more so when the wind is gentle, as it was for the bulk of Thursday morning.
“The thing is, they’re gettable for everyone,” Elliott said. “Long hitters don’t have an advantage. They’re very fair.”
Lost in the hoopla of Tiger Woods’ ballstriking genius in his 2006 Open Championship victory here is the way he went about his business: The bulk of his 18-under total was achieved on the par 5s, with 10 birdies, two eagles and zero bogeys for a whopping 14 under.
Heck, he was 9 under at the fifth and 16th holes alone that year.
That sort of productive stuff continued Thursday and for proof, consider that the first seven names on the leaderboard midway through the morning action were a combined 18-under on the par 5s – 19 birdies, an eagle by Francesco Molinari (at 18), and a lone bogey.
Now first things first. Give credit to the R&A, which isn’t as obsessed with players’ scores in relation to par as is its American counterpart, the U.S. Golf Association. Had Royal Liverpool been set up by the USGA, two of the par 5s would be called par 4s, and at a par of 70 the scores wouldn’t look so red.
But we digress and should return to Koepka, the 24-year-old who may be from Florida, though he’s feeling like a European these days. Having worked his way through Challenge Tour ports such as Kazakhstan, Catalonia and Acaya, Koepka built up enough chits to get into bigger games, then seized upon that opportunity to earn his PGA Tour card.
His second appearance in an Open Championship returns him to what could be called his second home, Europe, and comes just a month after he finished joint fourth at the U.S. Open. It was in pursuit of that title that Koepka got a most opportune chipping lesson for those short shots around firm, fast and tightly-mown areas.
Pinehurst No. 2 required just such a shot, and it is in much demand when playing links, so Koepka, who concedes his short game needs work, was all ears. The end result was his being handed a key to productivity.
“It had never entered his mind,” Elliott said, and having learned the game on the great links of Portrush, Northern Ireland, the caddie knew why. “In the U.S., (the short shots around the green) are one-dimensional. You just hit sand wedge. But in Europe, you have options, especially the putter.”
Koepka concedes that using a putter from well off the green “has taken a little adjusting, and you can make some funny putts,” but for the most part thought he handled the delicate shots around the green well.
Not that he needed them on the par 5s, mind you, because Koepka employed his massive power to take control. At the fifth, he hit driver, wedge then two-putted. At the 577-yard 16th he hit driver, 7-iron, then two-putted. And at the 551-yard 18th it was 2-iron, 2-iron, two putts.
Still, Elliott has watched his player take productive steps forward.
“He’s young and he’s still learning, but that part of the game (the short game) is where (playing in) Europe helps you,” Elliott said.
As far as Koepka is concerned, the improved short game wasn’t the only thing he was crediting. He thought it helped that he shot 75-77 at last week’s Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen, too. “It was nice to miss the cut,” Koepka said. “You never want to get beat up the week before a major, and it was tough wind in tough conditions.”
The flip side of missing the cut, which is never pleasant, is that Koepka arrived at a leisurely pace at Royal Liverpool, got to see the course “without all the chaos” and felt relaxed and ready for his second Open Championship assignment.
“I’ve had a few rounds under my belt,” he said, “and I think I know it well.”
Especially those par 5s.