It would be fitting for Brooks Koepka to win at a place dubbed “Royal Portrush,” wouldn’t it? He is golf’s current king after all.
Looking for his third major win in his last five outings (and four of his last seven!), Koepka shot a 3-under 68 in the first round at Portrush to start his 2019 Open Championship. He won’t have the lead at the end of the day, but he’s in prime position to win what could be his fifth major championship.
It started the way all major rounds for Koepka have started of late: with a flurry of red. Koepka birdied two of his first five and went out in 34. Then he added two more halfway through the back nine to get to 4 under and a share of the lead. It looked for a bit as if he might try and go wire to wire at the hardest place to go wire to wire.
However, a yanked drive at the par-4 17th left him with his only blemish on the round, a bogey five. He closed with a par for the 68 and was one back of clubhouse leader Shane Lowry at the time he finished.
It was a remarkable round that — at least at majors — has somehow become unremarkable in its frequency. Two things stood out to me. The first is how easily Koepka had his ball on a string. If there’s a better controller of the ball at majors right now, I’ve yet to see it. Fades, draws, long, short, he hit every shot.
The second is bogey avoidance. He didn’t put himself in a position to make mistakes. How do you do that? Well, you hit 79 percent of fairways and 72 percent of greens in regulation. It sounds boring because it is boring, but the boring path is the one that leads to multiple majors.
And here we are yet again with Koepka. The Open has traditionally been his “weakest” major (which is like saying top-of-the-key 3s are Kevin Durant’s weakest shot). His lone finish outside the top 21 at major since the 2015 U.S. Open came last year at Carnoustie when he finished T39, but even then he has two top-10 finishes in his last three.
He has four straight top-two finishes at majors since then (and that T39 was preceded by a U.S. Open win).
There’s a lot at stake for Koepka this weekend. The first of his generation to five major wins would be a remarkable achievement, especially at the age of 29. But he’s also chasing something else. Here’s Justin Ray of 15th Club.
No player in the modern era has finished in the top-two in all four majors in the same season – Brooks could become the first to do it at Royal Portrush. It should be noted that in 1953, Ben Hogan won all three majors he played – he did not compete in the PGA Championship that year.
Koepka has unlocked whatever the secrets are to contending for major championships. Like Kawhi Leonard for the Toronto Raptors last season, Koepka has slow-played the non-majors, the regular season, and thrown the full force of his mental and physical energy into major weeks.
It’s working for a lot of reasons, primarily because he’s more physically gifted than almost everyone else in the field. But it’s also due to his self-belief. Koepka reiterated before this tournament began that there’s only small list of golfers he has to defeat at every major. He, maybe more than anyone in the world, believes he’s going to win every major he tees it up in.
That’s an impossible task, of course, but he has somehow made it look more realistic than it should be.
There is no longer a king at the Dunluce Castle just off the property at Royal Portrush. Those days of medieval warfare and fiefdoms are long gone. They existed near the property that became Portrush some 400 years ago, never to be returned to again in these parts. The only royalty present now is at the course itself, and his crown contains four massive, costly jewels.
This week’s procession at Royal Portrush could add a fifth as King Koepka takes another swing at the biggest prize in golf.