At the US Open, Brooks Koepka is in his happy place and in contention

BROOKLINE, Mass. – As Brooks Koepka walked down the first fairway on a muggy Friday morning, a fan yelled his approval of the golfer’s attire.

“Today is a great day to wear white, Brooks. It’s hot out here,” the fan yelled. “Keep cool baby but don’t be afraid to get hot.”

Koepka, wearing a white shirt, navy pants and pale green cap in the second round of the US Open, took fan advice and bounced off an opening round 73 to post a three-under-par 67.

That put him on par after two rounds and in a familiar position – within striking distance of the lead that led into the weekend at the country club. Koepka had made the cut in his last seven US Opens and finished no worse than tied 18th.

Koepka, who won the 2017 US Open by a score of 16 under par and won again in 2018, speaks almost paternalistically about the Open. His schedule this season is geared toward the Majors — those are the only tournaments he’s competed in since late March — and he seems to be thriving on the challenges of this particular tournament.

“I love this event,” he said. “This event has always been good for me.”

It’s hard to argue otherwise. Koepka is the most successful US Open player of the last decade.

Nobody else in the 156-man field has won two US Opens. The last four times he’s played the tournament – missing the Open in 2020 due to knee and hip injuries – he has two wins in 2017 and 2018, a second-place finish in 2019 and a tie in fourth-place in the Year 2021 ended that Koepka has earned more than 6 million dollars. In those four events, only four players – Gary Woodland, Jon Rahm, Louis Oosthuizen and Harris English – finished ahead of Koepka.

“That’s pretty cool,” Koepka said, adding, “I wish it was less.”

He is one of only seven players to win the US Open in a row; the last before Koepka was Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989.

However, given his lack of tournament play this year, it was difficult to predict how well the 32-year-old four-time major champion – who had back-to-back PGA championship wins in 2018 and 2019 – would do. He missed the cut at the Masters. And he attributed his stunning performance at the PGA Championship in May – a tie for 55th place – to being more focused on his upcoming nuptials.

“I’ve been waiting for this party,” he said of the week-long celebration in the Turks and Caicos Islands in early June.

After that, Koepka retired to his home in Jupiter, Fla., worked with his caddy Ricky Elliott for four days, and dismissed any talk of rust from his layoff when he arrived at the country club.

“I had a lot of other things going on,” he said. “Look, sometimes golf is great and I love it, but at the same time I have other things that I enjoy doing. The wedding was a big deal. Now it’s over and I can play golf.”

At his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday, he reacted with irritation and chided reporters for asking him and other golfers questions about the LIV Golf International series, the Saudi Arabia-funded rebel golf tour that has featured stars like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson lured with huge paydays. The tour will play its second event, one of five in the United States near Portland, Oregon beginning June 30th.

Koepka’s star power and penchant for downtime make him an ideal target for the Upstart Tour, which to date has announced eight 54-hole events featuring shotgun starts, no-cuts and huge purses for even the last to finish. (Players who have canceled their PGA Tour membership or have been suspended from the Tour for joining the LIV Golf series can still play in the four major non-PGA Tour tournaments, although that is changing could.)

Koepka, who is ranked No. 19 in the world, could also have a whopping signing bonus. Mickelson is said to have received up to $200 million and Johnson up to $150 million to join LIV Golf, which is funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Koepka’s brother Chase plays on the tour.

“I’m here. I’m here at the US Open,” Brooks Koepka said when asked about LIV Golf. “They all throw this black cloud over the US Open. I’m sick of all this stuff.”

Koepka got off to a bad start in his favorite tournament. His 73 in the first round left him in 79th place with three over par and a tie when his day started on Friday. It equaled the second-worst round he’s shot in the past seven US Opens. Twice he opened with a 75. On one of those occasions, in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills, he rallied to win the tournament.

When he first played country club, Koepka had three birdies and six bogeys, including three straight on his back nine. With a similar performance in the second round, Koepka would probably have gone home. But he would have none of it.

A long birdie putt on the difficult third hole put him a day under par after nine holes. It could have been better. He missed feasible birdie putts on the first, seventh, and eighth holes. After a bogey on #10, he responded with birdies on the next two holes and an eagle on #14. He missed a short putt for par on #15, but made par on the last three holes.

Koepka lamented what he called his poor iron game. “That’s usually the strongest part of my game,” he said. He promised a quick solution. He drove the ball brilliantly and let the rest of the field know he wanted to be close and in contention this weekend.

“I don’t come here hoping for second place,” he said. “I think if you’re a good player, you want to come in here and win. That’s why everyone knocks it off.

He continued, “No one’s goal is just to make the cut or anything like that. I mean, I’m pretty confident, but I think everyone should be confident in themselves, and when you’re not – people hate confidence. That’s why people aren’t a big fan of me.”