Brooks Koepka emerges as a shining light through the gloom after dazzling first round at the US Open
After defying Old Father Time and Brooks Koepka in such thrilling fashion at Kiawah, Phil Mickelson found both exacting opponents far too much to handle in the first round of the one major he has never won.
Instead it was Koepka, in the event in which he has finished 1, 1, 2 in his last three appearances, who delivered a more customary judgment to post a 69 to Mickelson’s disappointing 75, leaving him just two strokes behind the early leader, American Russell Henley.
What a day it proved for the Molinari brothers, Francesco and Edoardo. Eleven years after they played alongside one another at the Ryder Cup, the pair teamed up together on the leaderboard in the first event for over a year in which they have both played.
Brooks Koepka’s desire was clear to see once the thick marine layer of fog lifted at the US Open
Edoardo has been playing well for a while now in Europe, so his 70 was no great shock. But what a pleasant surprise to see Francesco, who has plummeted from 5th in the world in 2018 to 173rd, deliver a 68.
On the eve of the event, Yorkshireman Pete Cowen, Koepka’s coach, made a prediction.
‘The man who finishes above Brooks this week is the one who will be holding the trophy,’ he said.
Given the intent and skill the 31-year-old Floridian displayed, it’s no wonder the Koepka camp are feeling so bullish, with their man now restored to full health following his knee problem.
Koepka didn’t put a foot wrong over his front nine and it was no surprise to see his fast start
Still smarting from what happened at Kiawah — and fired up by the thought of receiving the prize on offer this week from defending champion Bryson DeChambeau — Koepka’s desire was plain to see once the marine layer of fog that caused a 90-minute delay had lifted.
Starting from the 10th, he didn’t put a foot wrong over his front nine to reach the turn in 33 strokes.
It was a little more prosaic on the back nine as the wind picked up, but it did feature a ridiculous par at the 8th.
With his ball in thick rough in a hanging lie above the face of a greenside bunker, Koepka gripped way down the shaft of his wedge to display remarkable touch and strength and pitch out to 6ft before holing the putt. Over to you, Bryson.
Speaking of his unfriendly rival, he was part of the afternoon wave and had to put up with a few cries of ‘Brooksy, Brooksy’ as he prepared to tee off.
Local hero Phil Mickelson had a poor start and he fell off the pace after a bad break at the 13th
Alongside Koepka on the leaderboard was homeboy Xander Schauffele, who was a schoolboy spectator here for the Monday play-off in 2008 between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate.
The 27-year-old has four top-six finishes in this event in as many appearances.
The coastal fog is a regular early-morning occurrence at this time of year and is known locally as the ‘June gloom’.
There was more gloom on offer for the San Diegans in the shape of a horror start from local boy Mickelson. He followed a bogey at the 11th with a bad break at the 13th.
His problems began when he had to ask a noisy member of his considerable gallery to be quiet, as he contemplated his daring second shot on this par five. He ended up pushing it badly.
‘Shoot!’ and ‘darn’ he cried, as it sailed inexorably towards a penalty area. After taking a drop, his typically audacious chip cannoned into the flag and bounced unluckily into a heavy lie.
Mickelson’s problems began when he asked a member of the considerable gallery to be quiet
Another bogey followed at the 15th, before his solitary birdie at the 17th.
Mickelson had arrived for his early tee-time of 7.50am a good 90 minutes early. He was still practising as the delay stretched from 15 minutes initially to an hour and a half. Now 51, did he spend too long on the practice ground? He seemed to have used his quota of good shots by the time he reached his first hole.
The most extraordinary round among the morning wave belonged to Matt Wolff. Remember him? The 22-year-old finished tied-fourth on his major debut at the PGA last year, and followed it with a runner-up placing in this event.
What a contrast with the first two majors this year, where he was disqualified for signing for an incorrect score at the Masters and then withdrew from the PGA with his mind badly out of sorts.
Playing in his first event for two months following his growing pains, the last thing anyone expected was to see him break par with a 70. He had only two pars in his first 15 holes, with his eight birdies more than offsetting two double bogeys.
Patrick Roberts is awaiting his first pro win, but he was next to Koepka near the end of the day