AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Brooks Koepka carved out a new identity that sure looked familiar Thursday in the Masters.
This wasn’t about his surprising defection last year to LIV Golf, or even his victory four days ago that made him the Saudi-funded circuit’s first multiple winner. He just looked like “Big Game Brooks,” the player who built a reputation for playing his best in the majors.
Koepka was in full flight in the opening round at Augusta National, and he had company. He birdied his last two holes for a 7-under 65, giving him a share of the lead with Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland.
Koepka couldn’t stoop to read putts two years ago at the Masters when he tried to return from knee surgery in three weeks. He felt so hobbled last year he had reason to believe his run in the majors — four wins over three years — was about to be a memory.
He is getting his swagger back.
“Once you feel good, everything changes,” Koepka said.
As for Rahm, he never went away. Never mind that he dropped from a sure-fire No. 1 in the world to No. 3 in the span of a month. The Spaniard overcame a four-putt double bogey on the opening hole with a sublime display of shotmaking.
Hovland played bogey-free to join them atop a leaderboard filled with red numbers and the ominous “weather warning” signs that figure to play a big role this week.
A bad forecast has been talked about almost as much as how 18 players from Saudi-backed LIV Golf would perform amid the high-stakes pressure of a major over 72 holes with a cut.
Koepka carried the flag, though he was more thrilled with having healthy legs.
Rahm had a cool head. He took four putts from 40 feet, and on his way to the second tee thought of the famous quote from his Spanish idol, Seve Ballesteros, who once four-putted at Augusta and said, “I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.”
“If you’re going to make a double or four-putt, it might as well be the first hole — 71 holes to make it up,” Rahm said.
That he did. The Spaniard followed with seven birdies and an eagle, and his 65 was the lowest score in Masters history by anyone who started with a double bogey.
Koepka won the 2019 PGA Championship — his fourth major in a span of three years — that gave him a five-year exemption to the Masters. That runs out next year, and with LIV not getting any world ranking points, his path to Augusta is limited.
“If you win, you’re fine,” he said, bluntly and unbothered.
Hovland was among the early starters. The highlight was a 25-foot eagle putt on the second hole and being 7 under through 13 holes until he cooled at the end. The Norwegian star also stood out for other reasons. The azaleas are starting to lose their color from an early bloom. Hovland made up for it with his shirt.
“It’s definitely a little bit out there,” Hovland said. “But I think I’d rather take these than the pink pants I had last year. So we’re making progress.”
The warm, muggy air and relatively soft greens allowed for good scores for just about everyone. Cameron Young and Jason Day were at 67.
Defending champion Scottie Scheffler, trying to become only the fourth player to win back-to-back, was in the group at 68 that included major champions Shane Lowry, Adam Scott and Gary Woodland, along with Xander Schauffele and U.S. Amateur champion Sam Bennett.
Missing from the red numbers was Tiger Woods, who now has to worry about a chance to don that Sunday red shirt. He has never missed the cut as a pro in the Masters and will have some work to do if he wants to keep that streak alive.
Woods had a few lip-outs and a lot of limping. Woods saw plenty of birdies — he played with Hovland and Schauffele — but made only one himself over 14 holes. He had a late spark until finishing with a bogey for a 74.
It was his highest start in the Masters since 2005. He wound up winning that year, but this is a 47-year-old Woods with hardware holding his right leg together and a back that has gone through five surgeries. He said he was sore. He looked the part.
“Most of the guys are going low today. This was the day to do it,” Woods said. “Hopefully, tomorrow I’ll be a little bit better, a little bit sharper, and kind of inch my way through it.”
Woods wasn’t the only one who failed to take advantage. Rory McIlroy, needing a Masters green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam, took a double bogey from the trees on the par-4 seventh and had three more bogeys to offset his good play. He wound up with a 72, already seven shots behind a world-class leaderboard.
Rahm only a month ago was playing so well he looked unstoppable — three wins on the PGA Tour over his first five starts, all against strong fields. And then he dropped from No. 1 to No. 3 in no time as Scheffler and McIlroy surged.
Consider his opening round — even the four-putt double bogey — to be a reminder that his game is sharp and his passion is burning hot to be the next Spaniard to win the Masters.
That he could recall a funny line from Ballesteros so soon after a crushing start was a good sign. He thought his putting stroke was good on all of them. So he moved on. Rahm hit every fairway and missed only one green.
He hammered a 4-iron from 249 yards on the par-5 eighth that caught the ridge side of the green and fed down to 4 feet for eagle. He birdied four of his last six holes, finishing with an 8-iron to 3 feet on the 18th.
“The one on 18 takes the cake,” Rahm said. “The one on 18 was just perfect drive, great second shot and tap-in for birdie. You don’t usually get a walk-off birdie over here, and those two swings were about as good as they could feel.”
For Koepka, it’s all about feeling good.
His health — not to mention a nine-figure signing bonus — is one reason he went from supporting the PGA Tour to making the leap to LIV. Koepka says he started to feel healthy again toward the end of last year. He arrived in Augusta off a win.
“Get myself in contention with nine to go on Sunday,” he said. “That’s the whole goal.”
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