AUGUSTA, Ga. — Brooks Koepka didn’t want to share the gruesome details of the injury. But after shooting a 7-under 65 to tie for the first-round lead at the Masters with Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland, he obliged.
The now-member of the LIV Golf Tour and four-time major winner explained how he had slipped at home, dislocating his knee in the process and shattering it when he attempted to put it back in only to tear one of the ligaments around his patella.
“My leg was sideways and out. My foot was turned out,” Koepka said. “And when I snapped it back in, because the kneecap had already shattered, it went in pretty good. It went in a lot easier.”
In what was a revealing post-round interview, Koepka detailed the journey back from the injury that once had him unable to bend his knee and resulted in him missing the cut at the 2021 Masters following his surgery.
Before the injury and before he bolted for LIV last year, Koepka was considered not just one of the top players in the world, but also a player who almost exclusively excelled at majors. He built an entire reputation on being nonchalant about any other event but majors and seemed to thrive on an attitude of apathy toward golf. The episode of Netflix’s “Full Swing” in which Koepka appeared revealed a different side of the former top player in the world — he cared about golf and about winning. A lot.
“I think it was good. People probably don’t think I’m as open as what I really am,” Koepka said. “I’ll tell you exactly how I’m feeling at the time, how I’m feeling at the moment. I’m pretty vulnerable, too, away from the golf course. I’ve always said what you see on the golf course isn’t what you get behind closed doors.”
On Thursday, it appeared we saw both sides of Koepka: the dominant golf side that hit 12 of 14 fairways and 15 greens and finished with three birdies in his last four holes, and the slightly more vulnerable and open personal side.
“I wish I had celebrated the little milestones along the way instead of thinking I could just power through it,” Koepka said of his injury. “It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked, just trying to get back, because I felt like I was on the cusp of it, and it was nice to know that I was able to get through that.”
Much doubt has followed Koepka since he left for LIV, including whether he’d be able to conjure the level of golf that, for a brief but notable time, made him the most dominant player in the game. Thursday was only one round, but if Koepka isn’t just healthy again but back to playing like this, maybe the current best players in the world have to worry about another player on top of Rory McIlroy, Rahm and Scottie Scheffler come Friday and beyond.
Here are four other things to look out for on Friday at the Masters:
Checking in on the Big Three
Speaking of McIlroy, Rahm and Scheffler, all three had very different rounds Thursday. Scheffler didn’t play his best golf — which for him just means he didn’t finish the round in first place — but still played well enough to finish at 4-under and three off the lead after an eagle, three birdies and only one bogey.
Rahm was the one who rose to the top in the first round, starting with an uncharacteristic four-putt on the first hole before rattling off seven birdies and an eagle on his way to 7-under. It felt like the Spaniard was coming into this tournament as the least hyped of this trio, and he quickly showed why he might be the favorite as the event turned to the second round.
McIlroy, meanwhile, had a roller-coaster opening round carding five birdies but balancing them out with three bogeys and a double bogey to finish at even par. While on a normal day that might be a disappointment, McIlroy’s opening rounds at Augusta National Golf Club haven’t been exactly stellar. In fact, his 72 on Thursday was his best opening round at the Masters since 2017. There’s still plenty of golf to play and while many in the field have to worry about the weather getting worse, McIlroy could thrive in it.
Winter is coming (sort of)
Thursday was an idyllic day at Augusta National as the weather was Georgia spring perfect. That won’t last. With an expected heavy rain coming into Augusta over the next two days, it’s unclear what the second and third rounds will look like, whether they’ll be able to finish or how it will affect players’ performance. One thing was certain: A low score on Thursday was imperative.
“Today was the opportune time to get the round under par,” Tiger Woods said. “Most of the guys are going low today. This was the day to do it.”
As Rahm pointed out Thursday, the usual bad weather at Augusta results in suspension for thunderstorms, which delays the tournament but makes the course softer and more receptive to scoring after the weather clears. Friday and Saturday are projected to be days with a 90% chance of rain or more.
“With it softer, you’re going to see guys attack this golf course a little better,” Patrick Reed, who shot a 1-under 71, said. “If the wind stays down, like it did today, you’re going to see a lot of low scores.”
The forecast is expected to include winds ranging from 10 to 20 mph on both Friday and Saturday and should the tournament extend well into Sunday and perhaps Monday, the forecast will clear up and could facilitate even lower scores than it did Thursday.
Mickelson showing signs of life
In a surprising turn of events, it was Phil Mickelson — not Woods — who carded the lower score of the two Thursday. The 52-year-old shot a 1-under 71, while Woods shot 73 in his first major round of the year. Mickelson had been struggling plenty on the LIV tour this season, finishing 27th, 32nd and 41st in three events so far. His last major appearance was a missed cut at the U.S. Open.
But according to Mickelson, there’s something about Augusta that fits his aging, imperfect game.
“I feel like you can play this golf course and not have to be perfect,” Mickelson said. “As long as you put it in the correct spots, you can kind of manage your game around and shoot a number. I think that’s why I always enjoy playing here because I feel a little bit more relaxed, like I don’t have to be perfect.”
Whether Mickelson can keep this up and make his first cut at a major since winning the 2021 PGA Championship remains to be seen, but given where the leaders lie, they could both be fighting to make the cut Friday. Who knows, maybe we’ll see them paired up over the weekend.
The Sam Bennett Show
One amateur in the field was talked about plenty in the lead-up to Thursday’s first round. That was NCAA individual champion Gordon Sargent — who wowed players like Justin Thomas, Max Homa and McIlroy with his ridiculous ball speed and driving distance. Once Thursday wrapped up, though, it was U.S. Amateur winner Sam Bennett who stole the show.
Bennett and his unique, contorting swing played alongside Homa and Scheffler and matched the top player in the world’s score at 4-under while shooting four strokes better than Homa. The Texas A&M senior was unfazed all day and began his round by carding a birdie on 1 and an eagle on 2. He tacked on another birdie at the par-3 sixth hole and surrounded those red scores with 15 pars, including 12 straight to finish a bogey-free round.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of a better start,” Bennett said. “Bogey-free, that’s something I love probably the most out of everything. To go around this place bogey-free is pretty cool.”
With the score, Bennett became not just the first amateur to finish inside the top 10 after the first round since Ryan Moore in 2005. His score of 68 was the lowest score by an amateur in a major since Hovland’s 67 during the final round of the 2019 U.S. Open.
It’s unclear whether Bennett can keep this up through the rest of the week, but it’s going to be a blast to watch him try.