PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — The major championship season of 2019 — from the first ball in the air at Augusta National to the final putt at Royal Portrush — spans 101 days, and for most of them Brooks Koepka has been front and center. Day 99 — featuring the second round of the Open Championship — was no different to the rest.
Koepka signed for a 69 on Friday, which left him at 5-under-par for the tournament, at the time a few shots off the pace. He was asked if he expected to be leading, which is not an unreasonable question to put to a man whose last four major finishes have been 1st-2nd-1st-2nd.
“I wanted to,” Koepka replied with a shrug, “but it’s hard to when you don’t make any putts.”
“So you’d rather lead?” asked another questioner. The look that clouded Koepka’s face hinted at part confusion, part comedy and part contempt.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d rather be in last place.”
Some people like to fly under the radar, it was suggested. “I’d like to have as many shot lead as possible. You never know when you’re going to need it,” he said.
Koepka knows whatof he speaks. During the final round of the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in May, he was cruising with an eight-stroke lead but staggered home like a drunk who’d missed the last bus. He eventually held off Dustin Johnson by two.
That gave Koepka his fourth major victory in two years, sandwiched between near misses at the Masters and U.S. Open, part of a streak that has cemented him in the most elite group in golf: men whose presence on the upper reaches of a leaderboard is registered in the stomach pits of their competitors, whose ability to separate themselves and close is beyond question.
Despite being in the mix again at a major, Koepka cut a discontented figure after his round, which he said was marred by mediocre putting. “I didn’t make a putt all week. I just need to figure that out,” he said. “If I can make some putts I could very easily be 10-under, and really maybe more.”
10-under. “Easily.” That’s the kind of bravado that won’t go unnoticed by his fellow competitors.
“If I can just clean it up just the slightest little bit I could be off and running,” he added.
Koepka’s record through five appearances in the Open has been fair to middling. A tie for 10th at St. Andrews four years ago, T-6 at Birkdale in 2017. He has never been in contention for the Claret Jug. That is changing this year, in part due to the input from his caddie Ricky Elliott, who grew up in Portrush and knows every contour on the famed Dunluce links intimately.
If the boss gets “off and running” this weekend and collects his fifth major, I asked Elliott, will the bagman be making his scheduled trip Monday to Memphis for the WGC Championship? “Oh I’ll be flying,” he said with a laugh that did not imply his flight path would require a passport.
Elliott’s long dreamed-of party will have to wait until Day 101, but Koepka isn’t discounting it. “I’m hanging around, I guess. Just close enough. It’s not where I want to be but I guess for not making anything it’s hard to really expect to be up in the lead,” he said. “So probably to be four, five back, it’s OK. I’ll figure it out this weekend.”