If a four-time major winner can be an afterthought coming into a major he's won in two of the last three years, Brooks Koepka was an afterthought coming into this week. Then he went out and shot a 3-under 69 on Thursday to share an early lead at the 103rd PGA Championship and immediately become the favorite to make it three of the last four.
It did not start great. Playing with two other former PGA winners, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, Koepka made double at the first after hitting his tee shot into a waste area. While McIlroy was dropping after hitting into a hazard, cameras picked up Koepka in the background of the McIlroy footage hacking at a shot that hit into the side of a hill. From there, double bogey was about as good as he could do.
But there was no quit in the man who won a low-scoring affair at Bellerive Country Club in 2018 and then a monstrosity of an event at Bethpage Black in 2019. He played the tougher back nine (his front nine on the day) in even and then cruised on the front side of the course with a helping wind carrying him to a 3-under 33 on that side.
Though he did not drive it all that well all day (he only hit five fairways and consistently put himself in horrific spots off the tee and also said "I drove it so poorly today"), Koepka pounded greens like this was a U.S. Open, hitting all nine on the front side of the course. He also did what playing partner McIlroy did not and took advantage of the par 5s, a necessity at a brute like the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. Koepka, at 3 under, played them six better than McIlroy, which was also how many strokes he clipped McIlroy by on Thursday.
"It's a major," said Koepka. "I'm going to show up. I'm ready to play. I've been itching to do this since Augusta [National]. I mean, I feel so much better now. I don't need to be 100% to be able to play good."
It's true that he has been lethal at major championships over the past few years. He finished in the top five in all four in 2019 and has 12 top-10 finishes since 2015.
Koepka's talent level has never been in question, but his health has been following knee surgery in March. Koepka had work done on a kneecap dislocation and ligament damage he suffered in an injury that happened outside of tournament play. He's played just four rounds since that mid-March surgery, missing the cut at both the Masters and last week's AT&T Byron Nelson. He told reporters earlier this week that he won't be 100% for another six months.
Still, the game was thriving before his most recent injury. Koepka won the Phoenix Open in February and nearly bookended it with a victory at the WGC-Workday Championship shortly after that. His issues have all been health-related, but they have still been meaningful enough that nobody really knew how to prognosticate him coming into the week.
Though Koepka hit the ball last week at TPC Craig Ranch, he has not been able to squat down to read putts since he had surgery. This seems problematic (!), and yet, even though he had to read putts on Thursday by leaning to one side like a journeyman catcher setting up for a waste slider low and away, he finished in the top 10 in putting in the morning wave in Round 1. Even more scary, his iron play looked for the last 17 holes like somebody who's a true threat to win at maybe the toughest golf course in the country.
"I love it when it's difficult," Koepka said. "I think that's why I do so well in the majors. I just know mentally I can grind it out. Like when it's windy like this, it's not so much putting, it's more about ball-striking, and I felt like I struck it really well today. I feel like that's why I've done really well."
And therein lies the problem for one of the best fields in the world: Koepka is a problem, but Koepka with a lead at a major is a nightmare.
There's still a long way to go, of course, and who knows whether the body can hold up. But even on one and a half legs, Koepka has an experience that few other can lay claim to. He may not have started the week or the day looking like a potential five-time champion, but for the moment this tournament revolves around him, just as it has for most of the last few years.