ABU DHABI — His six-under-par 66 was not the best score among the morning starters on the opening day of the Abe Dhabi HSBC Championship—that honor went to Renato Paratore’s 64. But after three months off due to injury, Brooks Koepka was more than happy. Which was understandable. Claiming to have controlled his ball-flight, his spin and his distances “really well,” the World No. 1 went bogey-free in his first competitive round since his forced withdrawal from the CJ Cup in South Korea last October.
Playing alongside (and comfortably out-scoring) Open champion Shane Lowry (70) and Tommy Fleetwood (71), a two-time winner of this European Tour event, Koepka looked as if he had never been away. Not only was his long game firing as of old, his short game, honed under the expert eye of coach Pete Cowen, provided the highlight of the round, a chip-in from a distinctly unappetizing lie behind the 17th green.
“To chip one in there, I wasn’t expecting that,” said Koepka of what was the third of his six birdies. “But the short game was really good. The strike was really good. I have worked hard with Pete in trying to make sure I know what I'm doing and understand what I'm doing. All to make it repeatable.”
All of which was not the biggest unknown for the four-time major champion. How his fragile left knee would react to its first real test was surely at the back of his mind.
“It feels fine,” said Koepka after shooting his lowest score since his 65 in the final round of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic in July. “It was a little sore last night. Just did some treatment on it. That’s expected. This is the first week I’ve walked 18 holes and I’ve done it three times already. So it’s a little tired. Going forward, it is just about the quality, not quantity, when it comes to practicing. You can do it for two hours and make it much more useful than being out there for 9-10 hours. It’s about focusing, dialing-in on the right things and having an understanding of what you are working on.”
Strategically, Koepka was also more than impressive. While he wasn’t hitting too many of the elusive fairways with his new driver (few players do on this Peter Harradine-design), the key to his score was “missing” in the right places.
“I'm not really expecting to hit many fairways,” he said. “Some are no more than 12 yards wide. But when you put it in the rough, you have to be in position. You know where the pins are at. And when you know that, you can play the holes backwards and figure things out. You can be aggressive off the tee, hit driver and have a lob wedge from the rough. But at times it pays to lay back. You've just got to understand the golf course and really know how to play it.”
In the end, perhaps the only man not even a little surprised by his performance was Koepka.
“I like the way I've played,” he said. “I've kind of known I've been hitting it really well, putting it really well for a couple weeks. I think the first day I picked up a club, same thing. It felt like I hadn’t left. I’ve done it for years and years. You don’t forget how to swing the golf club.”