Brooks Koepka needed a solid round of golf to prevent becoming the third U.S. Open champion in four years to miss the cut in his title defense. Not only did he deliver, he added dashes of spectacular to climb into contention.
After an opening 75 Thursday and a scratchy start to his second round on Friday, Koepka caught fire at Shinnecock Hills. He birdied six of his last 11 holes and carded a 4-under-par 66 to climb into a share of fourth place midway through the 118th U.S. Open. The Florida native will begin the third round at 1-over 141, five strokes behind Dustin Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open champion.
“I felt like I played really well,” said Koepka, 28, who sat out 16 weeks and missed the first major of the year, the Masters, to rest an injured left wrist. “It was unfortunate [his start], just hit a few bad drives. And if you do that out here, it's going to penalize you pretty bad.
“I felt like I was playing solid. My iron play was pretty good. The putts were going in. I felt like I hit good putts yesterday. Nothing went in. Today, they were kind of bouncing in. … It was nice to see some go in, and I think I've got these greens a little more figured out today.”
He figured something out.
Not only did he need just 29 putts, he hit 11 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens in regulation, an all-around clutch effort amid tapering winds. Included in his run was a string of three birdies in a row starting on the 17th (after beginning his round on the 10th tee). It didn’t hurt that he stuck it close, making putts of 6, 11 and 5 feet, respectively.
“I feel like I've got some momentum on my side,” said Koepka, who tied the U.S. Open scoring record in relation to par last year at Erin Hills, shooting a 16-under 272. “Obviously, finishing with, what, six birdies, I played really solid. I felt like I played really solid yesterday. You know, there's nobody more confident here than me. I feel like I'm playing really well. Just need to continue what [I’m] doing.”
Asked what will make it difficult to catch Johnson, Koepka replied: “This golf course. There's not many birdies.”
He found plenty on Friday, however. But birdies won’t be enough.
“Like I said, there's a disaster around every corner,” he added. “I mean, all it takes is one shot in the fescue, and you could be in there for a while. But, obviously, you need a good round tomorrow just to give yourself a chance – you know, anything within three shots of the lead on the back nine Sunday.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to usga.org and usopen.com.