AUGUSTA - Brooks Koepka is being reacquainted with an old friend here this week: his former self.
The same player who once ripped off four major championships within 23 months last decade planted himself atop the 87th Masters field on a Friday, firing a second-round 5-under 67 before heavy weather moved in to hold a three-shot lead against some receding opposition. Koepka sits at 12 under.
Before play was suspended for a second time at 5:45 p.m. with heavy weather moving through east Georgia, Koepka’s closest competition was Jon Rahm, who was three shots back at 9 under with nine holes left to play, and 23-year-old amateur Sam Bennett, the week’s bigger interloper. The Texas A&M senior shot a second stellar 68 in the best Masters performance by a non-professional in 67 years.
Not since Ken Venturi was the midway leader at age 24 in 1956 has an amateur figured so prominently at Augusta National, Bennett’s two-round 136 score (8 under) just one shy of Venturi’s amateur record.
“I knew my golf was good enough to compete out here,” Bennett said. “I found myself in a situation that now I’ve got a golf tournament that I can go out and win.”
Could be a fun weekend.
And a water-logged one. Weather will pose a greater challenge on Saturday with a forecasted 100% chance of rain threatening to wash out play, particularly if windy conditions persist. Gusts are expected to reach 20 mph. Just before Friday’s second delay, several tall pine trees were blown down over the 17th tee, though no spectators were injured.
Play was called for the night after a one-hour, 23-minute wait, leaving 39 players on the course. Play is scheduled to resume at 8 a.m. Saturday, if possible. Besides Rahm, who had just started to make a move with birdies on the eighth and ninth holes, others contending include Collin Morikawa at 6 under (69-69) and first-round co-leader Viktor Hovland, also at 6 under with eight holes to complete.
A quartet of Jason Day, Sam Burns, Jordan Spieth and Cameron Young (with the back nine left to play) were all at 5 under.
Defending champion Scott Scheffler shot 75 to fall 11 stokes back, tying him with Dustin Johnson. The projected 2-over (146) cut line is expected to claim Rory McIlroy (149) and Bryson DeChambeau (148). Tiger Woods, with a streak of 22 consecutive cuts made, was at 2 over with seven holes to play.
No one wins the Masters with the championship not even half over but it is Koepka who had the field’s attention. As Spieth said, “He hasn’t won this one, which means a little bit more.”
His gruesome 2021 knee dislocation and subsequent surgery has been well-documented but not as much as Koepka’s recovery, which was underscored with his LIV Golf Orlando victory last week. His play here thus far against an elite field reimagines the same player who won two U.S. Opens (2017 and 2018) and PGA championships (2018 and 2019).
He admits to trying to return too soon for last year’s Masters, when he shot a pair of painful 75s, missed the cut and did his best to punch out the rear window of a courtesy car not once but twice as he loaded up to leave the grounds.
“I guess Mercedes makes a pretty strong back window,” he said.
Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com
Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com
A year later, he has remounted his quest for the career Grand Slam. Nineteen other players have won five majors but only five players have completed the Grand Slam and Koepka lacks the Open Championship and the Masters. The closest he has come here was as 2019′s runner-up.
“Yeah, the whole goal is to win the Grand Slam, right?” he said. “I feel like all the greats have won here and they have all won British Opens as well. Look, I guess it’s one more box for me to tick to truly feel like I’ve done what I should have accomplished in this game.”
Before he joined the Saudi-based LIV Golf Tour last year, Koepka’s last victory anywhere was the Phoenix Open over two years ago and not until early this winter did his right leg feel like it could support his swing. But Koepka’s was more propelled Friday by his putting. Before he found his stride -- was 1-under through seven -- he saved par with four putts between six and 10 feet until he eagled the par-5 eighth from 13 feet, dropping him to 10 under.
He hit the weekend with the third-lowest score in history, following Spieth (130 in 2015) and Raymond Floyd (131 in 1976). Don’t bother to ask how he will approach the final 36 holes. Nothing matters except the next swing.
“Same mindset,” Koepka said. “Got me this far, so it should be all right on Saturday, Sunday. It’s just up to me whether I play good or not. Simple.
“But yeah, like I said, I like the way I’m playing. It’s just, I’ve seen it coming for a little bit so I’m very pleased.”