Brooks Koepka is a birdie machine again and four other Day 1 takeaways at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude
Looks like somebody had his swagger back on Thursday at TPC Southwind.
Nick Faldo summed things up nicely during Golf Channel broadcast of the opening round of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. In response to another Bryson DeChambeau rules official encounter, he quipped, “There’s a lot going on for a quiet Thursday afternoon, isn’t there?”
Indeed, DeChambeau’s situation was entertaining yet just one of several notable things taking place at TPC Southwind.
Most notable: Brooks Koepka shooting a sizzling eight-under 62 to take a two-stroke lead over Rickie Fowler and Brendon Todd. Here’s a look at Koepka’s day along with other observations from the afternoon.
Is Brooks back?
Earlier in the week, Koepka was asked about his confidence entering the WGC-FedEx St. Jude with the PGA Championship around the corner, given recent struggles that included two missed cuts and a T-62 in his last three starts.
Koepka responded as one would expect from the man who often feels slighted in the respect department, firing back, “I’m defending [champion], aren’t I?”
He is, this week at TPC Southwind and next week at TPC Harding Park.
“OK, then,” he added. “Just checking.”
Koepka's eight-under 62 on Thursday matched his career low score on the PGA Tour.
While the response was brash, perhaps the line of questioning was just the latest motivational chip the four-time major winner was looking for. Thursday, Koepka birdied his first four holes and added five more while making just one bogey en route to a 62, matching the lowest score of his PGA Tour career.
What changed? A recent session with coach Pete Cowen, who has worked with Koepka since his early days on the European Tour’s Challenge circuit, helped.
“Pete is obviously one of the best coaches ever in my opinion,” Koepka said. “With Pete, it’s more psychological. He’ll beat me down, tell me I can’t do something, he’ll jump on me pretty good and I enjoy that when someone tells me I can’t do something.”
Rickie’s bright side
Fowler looks at the 11th green during Thursday's first round at TPC Southwind.
Rickie Fowler’s attire was hard not to notice on Thursday—specifically a highlighter yellow and pink hat with shoes to match. And yet it was his play that stood out more.
Fowler’s iron game and putting were impressive as he made seven birdies and just one bogey on his way to a 64. It was a significant achievement given that Fowler ranks near dead-last in first-round scoring (T-192, 71.73) on tour this season—yet is among the best in second-round scoring (11th, 68.73), so look out Friday.
It was also his lowest score in any round since January. The swing changes Fowler has been making since last year when he hired a new coach, John Tillery, finally seem to be paying off.
“I definitely have [been frustrated],” Fowler said of his slow start, with three missed cuts in five starts since the tour resumed play in mid-June. “I hate missing cuts, especially I would probably have like one day that was good and one little off day that kind of kept me from making cuts or held me back. I think some of it, me being a little hard on myself for trying to be too perfect and working on stuff versus leaving that on the range and just go play. It also hasn’t helped that my putter hasn’t been my best friend and that’s I feel like one of the better parts of my game. I feel like when I get on the greens, I feel like I’m one of the best putters in the world.”
Check and check. Despite finding the fairway just half the time on Thursday, Fowler hit 13 greens and had a strokes gained/putting mark of 2.44. It helped, too, that he didn’t even need the putter on one hole, chipping in for birdie at the par-3 eighth.
Rory’s rocky start
McIlroy shot a three-over 73 at TPC Southwind to put himself two strokes out of last place in the 78-player field.
Since the tour resumed play in June, each tournament has had a similar feeling. At least to Rory McIlroy. Perhaps that explains his indifferent play—three finishes outside the top 30 sandwiched around a T-11 at the Travelers Championship.
Thursday at TPC Southwind, where a year ago he led Brooks Koepka by a stroke going into the final round before getting Koepka dusted him on Sunday, the Northern Irishman’s struggles continued as he shot a three-over 73 that leaves him two strokes out of last place in the 78-man field.
Driving. Iron play. Putting. None of it worked particularly well. The result: Five bogeys, including three in a row at one point, and just two birdies. He also failed to birdie either of the par 5s on the course.
The good news: There’s no cut, and he has three more rounds to iron it out.
Rahm’s first round as No. 1
In his first round as the reigning World No. 1, Rahm's game didn't quite match his ranking.
Not to keep the train of negativity rolling here, but Jon Rahm, playing his first round since becoming the No. 1 ranked player in the world, didn’t exactly perform like a man befitting the moniker.
Four birdies, four bogeys and an even-par 70 leaves him well off the pace of the Koepka, who occupied the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings for much of last year. It also left Rahm scratching his head (and letting fly some angry words on occasion). Understandably so considering he was anything but accurate on Thursday, with most of his misses sailing right.
“I’m glad I made all those par putts early on to get the round going because I just didn’t have a swing today,” said Rahm, who is coming off a standout performance en route to victory at the Memorial two weeks ago. “I felt terrible, I could not figure out where the ball was going to go and I was just trying to minimize mistakes.”
Did it feel any different playing as the top-ranked player in the world?
“No,” he said. “It feels like any other day.”
Just not like many recent days.
Just when you thought the tour managed to escape summer storms by leaving Ohio two weeks ago, there’s Memphis, where the forecast for the week is less than ideal. That includes the outlook for Friday.
As a result, second-round tee times have been bumped up and will now take place between 7 and 9 a.m. CDT as the field will continue to play in threesomes off Nos. 1 and 10.