AUGUSTA, Ga. — After the Friday round of last year’s Masters Tournament, Brooks Koepka stormed to a Mercedes-Benz parked at Augusta National Golf Club. He was in a fury, a four-time major tournament champion with a beat-up body, a war chest of pent-up ambition and another missed cut.
He tried twice with his fist to break the back window, which did not so much as crack, a pair of low moments in a year so overrun with them that one of the finest golfers of his generation found himself wondering whether he should play on.
“If I wasn’t going to be able to move the way I wanted to, I didn’t want to play the game anymore — it’s just that simple,” Koepka said on Friday, when he recounted how it sometimes took 20 minutes to get out of bed, or how he had sometimes feared demanding too much of his knee.
But as Koepka gave the world a new glimpse into his tormented mind and sustained agony, it was as the leader of the Masters, where his five-under-par 67 in Friday’s second round gave him a three-stroke lead when play was suspended for the day because of inclement weather.
A victory on Sunday — or whenever the tournament ends, given a Saturday forecast of two inches of rain and winds reaching 30 miles per hour — would be of an exorcism of sorts for Koepka, who went from champion to close-but-not-quite to cut material over just a few years. It would also be a singular achievement for LIV Golf, the circuit Koepka joined last year after Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund bankrolled it with billions of dollars, and assure Koepka that, even as much of the golf establishment denigrates his new league, he can play the Masters for life and, likely, other majors for at least five more years.
“If you win one here,” Koepka said Friday, “it kind of ticks a lot of boxes, doesn’t it?”
Indeed. It would also put him a British Open victory away from a career Grand Slam.
Koepka approached the first tee on Friday sharing one-third of the lead with Viktor Hovland and Jon Rahm, who had also carded 65s on Thursday. With poor weather looming, he figured an early start would be an advantage. By the time Augusta National briefly suspended play for the first time on Friday, he was well past signing his scorecard, and Rahm and Hovland had not even made the turn. Rahm had not gained so much as a stroke after six holes, and Hovland had surrendered one after seven.
Meanwhile, Sam Bennett, a 23-year-old amateur from Texas A&M University, had picked up four shots to move to eight under. His 68 on Friday matched Marvin Ward’s Masters record from 1940 for the lowest second round by an amateur. No amateur has ever won the tournament, first played in 1934.
But Bennett, who trailed Rahm by a stroke after the world’s third-ranked golfer birdied the eighth and ninth holes, certainly outmaneuvered many professionals. Rory McIlroy, No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, had a miserable Friday and was poised to miss The cut at the conclusion of the second round, which Augusta National officials hope to restart on Saturday.
Although the cut line could shift and some were still playing, the past major champions Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio García, Louis Oosthuizen and Bubba Watson were all in significant danger of exiting the tournament. Civility and turned players, in the minds of the league’s critics, into symbols of greed and a surreptitious Saudi quest to repair the kingdom’s tarnished reputation.
For Koepka, who earned about $38 million in prize money on the PGA Tour, LIV has been his most prominent proving ground lately. He has won two of the circuit’s events, including a tournament in Florida last weekend.
On Friday at the Masters, he scarcely waited to break the tie he faced at daybreak. He moved to the top of the leaderboard with a birdie at No. 2, one of those eminently gettable holes where a potential champion should make headway.
He made par on the next five holes, and then he reached No. 8, the 570-yard par-5 that Rahm eagled on Thursday.
After his drive, Koepka figured he had about 256 yards to the pin. A smear of mud encrusted part of the ball, leaving Koepka to wonder what it would do. He wanted to leave the ball short of the pin, clutched his 3-iron and took a swing that, he said, he could not have made not all that long ago, not with that uphill lie and a lack of power.
The ball landed just short of the green, and then bounced onto it, rolling toward the right. A putt later, he, too, had an eagle at No. 8. Birdies at No. 13, which is playing 35 yards longer this year , and No. 15 sealed his 67, a bogey-free round on a day when McIlroy had four just on the front nine.
“He drove it well, hit his irons well, chipped it well and putted it well,” said Gary Woodland, the 2019 US Open winner who was grouped with Koepka on Thursday and Friday. “It was a clinic for 36 holes.”
Such a show of force seemed improbable until only recently, and it was still so unexpected that Koepka being able to linger in a crouch at No. 13, which he birdied on Friday, was notable.
For some time, he said afterward, he had been angry when he did something so simple and standard for a professional golfer, angry about how he had slipped at home and dislocated a knee — and burst a kneecap and tore a ligament when he tried to relocate the knee himself.
Had he been healthy, he acknowledged Friday, the decision to join LIV, with its guaranteed money and 54-hole, no-cut tournaments, probably would have been a closer call. Around the time LIV’s first season ended in the fall, he said , he began to believe he was on the verge of a revival. By the end of January, he felt all but certain of it.
“I’ve got a completely different knee, so the normal is a little bit different, but swing-wise, it still feels the same,” he said. “I’m able to do everything I need to, and the confidence is there. The confidence was lost just because of my knee and that was it.”
Hovland, who was through 10 holes when play was suspended, and Collin Morikawa, who had finished his round, were tied for fourth at six under, just behind Rahm and Bennett.
The nearest LIV player to Koepka’s score was Phil Mickelson, who trailed the leader by eight strokes. For the embattled league, that gap is almost beside the point. Koepka’s surge at Augusta is perhaps the circuit’s most welcome reprieve after months of legal setbacks, inc. defeats, a miserly television contract in the United States and, according to a court filing from LIV, revenues of “virtually zero.” (A federal judge in California ruled Friday that a trial in the acrimonious litigation between the PGA Tour and LIV would not begin in January 2024, as had been planned. The judge did not immediately set a new trial date.)
LIV’s extractors and rivals, particularly the PGA Tour, have revealed in its troubles and pined for its demise. At the same time, many in the golf establishment fretted over the possibility that a LIV player could soon enough prevail at one of the sport’s grandest competitions .
At last summer’s British Open, a reporter asked the R&A’s chief executive whether a LIV player hoisting the claret jug would amount to the governing body’s “worst nightmare.”
After all, the executive, Martin Slumbers, had just lashed LIV’s model as “not in the best long-term interests of the sport” and “entirely driven by money.”
“Whoever wins on Sunday is going to have their name carved in history,” Slumbers replied then, “and I’ll welcome them onto the 18th green.”
The sport’s leaders came only so close to such a scene last summer. One like it might now be only two rounds away — once, of course, the second round actually concludes.