1-2 punch: Koepka (-12) sets pace at Masters

1-2 punch: Koepka (-12) sets pace at Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — After Brooks Koepka missed the cut in the Masters for the second straight year in April 2022, he took out his frustration on his courtesy car in the parking lot of Augusta National Golf Club.

“I don’t even know if I should be saying this, but pretty sure I tried to break the back window with my fist,” Koepka said Friday. “I tried to put it through the back window not once, but twice. First time didn’t go, so figured I’d try it again. Yeah, it was a lot of frustration last year. Super annoying.

“The ride home was pretty silent. I think just a lot of frustration. But yeah, I guess Mercedes makes a pretty good back window.”

Local dealerships won’t have to worry about their luxury automobiles this year.

Koepka, a four-time major champion, fired a 5-under 67 in Friday’s second round to move to 12 under after 36 holes at the 87th Masters. He leads by three strokes over Jon Rahm, who was still on the course when play was suspended for the day because of weather, and four strokes over amateur Sam Bennett of Texas A&M, who finished at 8 under.

Rahm was on No. 10 when the air horn sounded for the second time Friday to stop play after a 21-minute delay earlier in the afternoon. Multiple tall pine trees fell near patrons just before the second stoppage, with nobody being injured, and the decision was suspend the second round until 8 a.m. Saturday.

Viktor Hovland (6 under), Cameron Young (5 under) and Tiger Woods (2 over) were among the 39 players who have not completed the second round, with the projected cut line currently at 2 over.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Koepka tied for the third-lowest 36-hole score to par in Masters history. Only Jordan Spieth (14 under in 2015) and Raymond Floyd (13 under in 1976) had better scores after the first two rounds. LIV Golf CEO and commissioner Greg Norman was also 12 under in 1996; he was the only player among the trio who failed to win.

Koepka’s history of holding a lead in the majors suggests it’s going to be difficult for anyone to chase him down on the weekend. He previously held the 36- or 54-hole lead in five majors and won four times — at the U.S. Open in 2017 and 2018 and the PGA Championship in 2018 and 2019. He failed to hold a second-round lead at the 2019 Masters and tied for second behind Tiger Woods.

Back then, Koepka showed up at majors with swagger and the confidence that no one could beat him. For the past two years, he was a shell of himself after he dislocated and shattered his right kneecap in a fall in March 2021. Surgeons told him it would take 18 months to fully recover.

“I’ve come a long way since then,” Koepka said. “A lot of it, it’s pretty much all health-related.”

Koepka, 32, even wondered if he would play again. He said his health was one of the reasons he joined the LIV Golf circuit in June. He reportedly received a guaranteed signing bonus of more than $100 million.

“Honestly, yeah, probably, if I’m being completely honest,” Koepka said when asked by a reporter if his decision to leave the PGA Tour would have been more difficult if he were healthy. “I think it would have been. But I’m happy with the decision I made.”

The 23-year-old Bennett, the U.S. Amateur champion who is from Madisonville, Texas, had back-to-back birdies at the 13th and 14th holes en route to a second consecutive 68. He just missed the Masters’ 36-hole amateur record of 9 under set by Ken Venturi in 1956.

“I love being in big-time situations,” Bennett told ESPN after his round. “I love being nervous. I use that to my advantage. … I just love hitting shots when they matter. To put up two rounds and have a chance going into the weekend, it’s going to be fun.”

After winning the LIV Golf League’s tournament in Orlando, Florida, last week, Koepka once again looks like the player who routinely won or finished in the top five at majors. In the first two rounds of the Masters, he hit 29 of 36 greens, needed 57 putts and went 6-for-7 scrambling. He is a combined 7 under on par-5s, even after making a bogey on the 13th hole Thursday. He had three birdies and an eagle on par-5s Friday.

“He’s been playing well,” said three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, another LIV Golf player. “He won last week. He’s had some momentum. [The] greens were difficult last week. They were fast. Every bit as fast as this, if not faster. He had good touch on the greens. You knew he was going to have a good week.”

Because LIV Golf players haven’t received world-ranking points for their finishes in that circuit’s tournaments the past two seasons, Koepka has fallen to 118th in the Official World Golf Ranking. His last victory in a major came in the 2019 PGA Championship, which gave him a five-year exemption into the Masters, which runs out next year.

Unless the OWGR starts recognizing LIV Golf events, it’s going to be difficult for Koepka to climb back into the top 50, which is another way to earn an invitation to Augusta National Golf Club each year.

Of course, the best pathway to getting into the Masters each year is by winning a green jacket, which comes with a lifetime exemption. Koepka would join 19 men who have won at least five majors if he can hold on this weekend.

“Yeah, if you play well enough, you should still be in the top 50, if you play well enough in all the majors,” Koepka said. “But yeah, if you win one here it kind [of] ticks a lot of boxes, doesn’t it?”

With colder weather, rain and wind coming Saturday, Mickelson said there’s plenty of work left for Koepka.

“A lot of crazy things happen here,” Mickelson said. “We see a lot of low scores and then we see a lot of guys fall back, which you just never know. I wouldn’t expect that of him, he’s playing so well, but I also think there’s a low round in there from other players.

“If things aren’t clicking, it’s not the easiest golf course to shoot 3, 4 under par. You can keep it around par, but if you’re not playing pretty good golf, it’s hard to keep it in the 60s. So guys can catch him if they get hot.”

After Friday’s round, Koepka was again asked about an incident during the opening round, in which video replays appeared to show his caddie, Ricky Elliott, mouthing the word “five” to Gary Woodland‘s caddie, Brennan Little. The interaction came after Koepka hit his second shot on the 15th hole.

On Thursday, the committee questioned Koepka, Woodland and their caddies about whether they were helping each other. The rules committee cleared them of any rules violation, saying “all involved were adamant that no advice was given or requested.”

On Friday, Koepka said he was questioned by the committee again about whether he signaled five before taking off his glove.

“Today was just about my — I guess my hand and my glove,” Koepka said. “I don’t know if you’re supposed to take your glove off with your fist closed or what now.” Woodland, the 2019 U.S. Open champion, denied getting help from Koepka.

“I hit my shot,” Woodland said Friday. “When we were walking down, I asked Brooks what he hit, and he said 5. If I would have known that, I probably would have hit 6-iron, and I would have hit 6-iron in the middle of the water. Luckily for me, I didn’t know what he hit. That’s the end of it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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