CROMWELL, Conn. – Brooks Koepka opened the first round of the Travelers Championship on Thursday as if to prove that practice might not be a necessity for success.
Despite not having seen TPC River Highlands for nearly a year Koepka spent the last 24 hours resting at home in Jupiter, Fla., after winning a second consecutive U.S. Open on Sunday and then having non-stop media obligations for three consecutive days. Koepka teed off on River Highlands’ 10th hole and registered a par and four consecutive birdies to quickly move within two strokes of the lead.
And when Koepka birdied the short second hole to get to 5-under par, he shared the top spot with Jason Kokrak, who had started in the first group off the 10th tee. But the emotionally draining craziness of the previous week then took its toll on Koepka, who made one birdie and four bogeys on the final six holes to shoot a 2-under-par 68 that left him five strokes behind defending champion Jordan Spieth and two-time major winner Zach Johnson, who had career-best-tying six consecutive birdies on the back nine.
“I still don’t really know where I’m at,” Koepka said with a sigh and shake of his head. “I feel like I played a lot better than the score kind of reflected. It was nice to get off to a good start. I’m still kind of going on adrenaline right now, but I’ll be honest, I’m dead right now. I think it showed coming in. Just exhausted.”
Koepka said he planned to go home and take a nap before heading to the gym. He and No. 1 ranked Dustin Johnson, who finished third Sunday while playing with his buddy, work out frequently and are arguably the two best conditioned players on the PGA Tour.
But despite being a physical specimen, Koepka just couldn’t hold it together for 18 holes.
“Monday through Wednesday went very quick, as you can imagine,” Koepka said. “It’s nice to be back playing. I was focused on this week getting ready, but last week takes a lot out of you.”
And to think that Koepka had a similar ordeal when he won his first U.S. Open. On Sunday, he became the first repeat winner since 1984 Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open winner Curtis Strange (1988-89). Strange was a roving reporter with Koepka and Johnson on Sunday and gave the winner an emphatic hug as he headed for the scoring trailer.
Still, the physically strong Koepka appeared to sag a bit down the stretch Thursday.
“I played really well. I really did,” Koepka said. “I just lost a bit of energy there at the end. But I’m playing really well, putting good, just a couple of bad swings. But that just comes from focus and not really paying attention too much. I just ran out of gas.”
Part of that was attributed to Koepka not falling asleep until 4:45 a.m. Monday and then awaking at 8 to find Johnson in his living room of his boat.
“He came over on the boat to say hi, so it was not as much rest as I would have liked,” Kopeka said. “But it feels good to be back out playing. I’m still playing well, so I’m not too worried about today.”
The U.S. Open trophy is “just chillin’ ” in his house and will remain there for awhile as Kopeka heads to Boston next week to hang out with some buddies at a bachelor party.
Kopeka said he never considered not playing the Travelers Championship.
“This was always on the schedule, and I had three months off in the beginning of the season (partially torn tendon in left wrist), so this was a place we wanted to come,” Kopeka said. “I knew I was going to play. I committed to coming, so I’m not going to back out.”
Kopeka is the first U.S. Open winner to play the next week since Justin Rose in 2013. His celebration Sunday night didn’t start until just before midnight. Several pizzas were ordered, with family and friends savoring the moment again
Koepka opted out of the Celebrity Pro-Am on Wednesday, and tournament director Nathan Grube certainly understood why.
“He didn’t commit until last week but said he was coming regardless of what happened in the U.S. Open,” Grube said. “Of course, you never really think about him winning.”
Koepka’s agent called Grube on Monday night asking if he could skip the pro-am.
“I was very open to whatever flexibility he needed for his schedule,” Grube said with a smile.
Koepka arrived at River Highlands on Wednesday afternoon, hit balls on the practice range and then was on the 10th tee at 8 a.m. Thursday.
While Koepka finished on a downer, Johnson birdied Nos. 11-16 before a bogey-par finish.
“That birdie streak felt great, a real treat,” said Johnson, who tied his low score in 43 rounds at River Highlands. “The ever competitor in me felt like it could have been more. I actually lipped out my chip on 10 and lipped out for eagle on 13. So I’m saying all that, but yet I made some putts and hit quality shots.”
Spieth was equally adept on both nines, with his lone bogey coming after he hooked his drive into a pond on the 15th hole. But that came nine holes after eliciting memories of sinking his historic 61-foot bunker shot on the first playoff hole, No. 18, to beat close friend Daniel Berger and join Tiger Woods as the only players to capture 10 PGA Tour wins by the age of 24.
This time, Spieth holed a 40-foot bunker shot from the left of the sixth green for eagle 3 on the way to matching his first-round score in his tournament debut last year. He said this 63 was the smartest round that he played this year third-best to the first and last at the Masters.
“It was a pretty tough bunker shot, a little bit of a down slope,” said Spieth, who missed the cut in his last two starts, the Memorial Tournament and U.S. Open. “II had to get close to the ball and nip it. Obviously a bonus for it to go in. But when I struck it, I was excited about the way that I hit the shot and the real commitment to the shot which was what it required to get it close to the hole.”
Amazingly, Spieth’s latest bit of dramatics came minutes before No. 2 ranked Justin Thomas holed a 48-foot shot from the same bunker that lifted him out of the doldrums and led to a 67 and tie for ninth that also included Kokrak, former No. 1s Jason Day and Padraig Harrington, Bryson DeChambeau and James Driscoll, who grew up in Brookline, Mass., was one of four Open qualifiers on Monday. Driscoll, an All-American at the University of Virginia before qualifying for the PGA and Web.com Tours, had double-bogey 5 at No. 11 and six birdies, including at the 16th and 18th holes.
Thomas had some fun with the media in his post-round press conference.
“Did you know right before you hit your bunker shot there that there was another (that went in)?”
“Yeah, we saw it,” Thomas said with a wry smile, knowing full well that he was in the group behind Spieth.
Then the coup de grace!!!
“Did you learn from it?” the writer said Thomas.
A lot of athletes might have wanted to get all over someone for such a stupid question, but Thomas merely smiled and said, “No, because it was about 260 yards away, so you can’t really learn a whole lot from that far away.”
Adding to the comic relief of the situation, someone asked Thomas why his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, started to hand him his putter after his shot disappeared.
Thomas again smiled and said, “Yeah, I was wondering what he was doing.”
Rory McIlroy, ranked sixth in the world, bogeyed the 18th hole to shoot 64, tying his final-round score last year in his tournament debut.
“A couple of 64s back-to-back is quite nice,” said the personable Irishman, who had seven birdies and was in relatively easy range of several others. “I played really well and feel like the work the work that I did over the weekend (after missing the cut in the U.S. Open) sort of started to pay off already.
“It was nice to see the shots I was playing right there. Being able to work the ball both ways was something I wasn’t quite as comfortable doing last week. Obviously, you never want to miss a cut in a major, but it might have been a blessing in disguise for the rest of the year.”
McIlroy, who missed the cut in the U.S. Open, shared third with Peter Malnati and Brian Harman, who holed curling, 40-foot putt for birdie at No. 18.
“That was a pretty tough chip,” said Harman, one of the few lefthanders on the PGA Tour. “I would have been really happy with about a four- or five-footer. I was able to check it up into the hill, and once it started going sideways, I knew it had a chance.”
Other New England scores: Keegan Bradley, Richy Werenski and J.J. Henry T- 37 at 2-under; Rob Oppenhiem T-99 at +1; Jon Curran T-114 at +2; and Adam D’Amerio T-146 at +5.
KEN GREEN ON HUBERT GREEN
Danbury native and former PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions player Ken Green put these thoughts on his blog about World Golf Hall of Famer and 1981 Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open winner Hubert Green, who died Wednesday after a lengthy bout with throat cancer. Kenny’s career was curtailed when he lost the lower part of his right leg in a recreational vehicle accident in 2009. He still inspired folks through emotional speeches and continuing to play on a limited basis despite constant pain, including in the Connecticut Open several times.
Here’s Kenny on Hubie:
Just quick note on the passing of my Green sake Mr. Hubert Green. That boy had pure tenacity and grit. A very, very underrated player too! I will never forget him coming up to me in Atlanta while I was practicing my putting. I was putting like a pig, so I was there for awhile. He comes up to me in his dry quick ass sarcastic way and says, “Damn it boy, you’re giving our name a Demerit.” I looked up like what the (bleep) are you talking about? He then said, “You can’t stay at the same place and putt. Look at the foot indentation you’ve made on the green.” I never ever even saw it or thought about it. I looked up and said, oh damn. I have never ever stayed in one spot again.
He didn’t get the credit because in a way he was rough with the media, who controls your image as you know. When a reporter asked a stupid question, which is every interview, he would tell them. Just the idea that it took them unto; 2007 to put him in the Hall of Fame shows how personal feelings effect what so-called intelligent men think.
The Hub and Fuzzy Zoeller were like brothers and they loved going out at night. I went a few times with them but learned fast that booze and women do not mix well with golf. They were professionals in all ways. I was a rookie in all ways. Hub was one of my favorite guys out there because he was himself. An ornery dude but true to himself. His short game was very underrated also.