Brooks Koepka is not the leader after 36 holes at the 2021 PGA Championship, but he is definitely the favorite — both on the oddsboard and otherwise — after lighting up the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island on Friday. Koepka posted a 1-under 71 as his wave’s scoring average rose to 76.
Wind whipped off the Atlantic Ocean, but Koepka flew a flag few have in their bag: four-time major winner, conqueror of the hardest courses in the world. He finished second in the field from tee to green on Friday and used a pair of eagles to back up his 3-under 69 with a 1-under 71 to get to 4 under on the week, one back of co-leaders Phil Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen going into the weekend.
For a while, it looked like it would be even better than that as Koepka ran off a string of five 3s in eight holes including at two par 5s in the middle of his round while he and his playing partners had the wind at their backs. He briefly took a co-lead with Oosthuizen at 6 under before playing the last four holes in 2 over to fall just back of Saturday’s final pairing.
“I would have been pretty disappointed with even par,” said Koepka, who graded his day as a C+. “I would have felt like I could have played a lot better. But 1 under in these conditions, it’s OK.”
It was better than OK. There were only nine rounds better than his 71 in the toughest conditions any wave has faced so far this week. William Hill Sportsbook has installed the two-time PGA champion as a 4-1 favorite to make it three in four years. It’s been nearly a century since somebody won three PGA Championships in a four-year span.
Now the table is set for him to do just that over the next 36 holes. Incredibly, he’s done it thus far without his biggest weapon. Koepka is outside the top half of this field in strokes gained off the tee (mostly due to a bad Round 1 with the big stick) and is getting it done by decimating green after green after green (currently third in greens in regulation).
The only player on the current leaderboard with more major wins than Koepka is Mickelson, but Lefty is also 50 years old and has expressed concerns about staying mentally focused for all 72 holes. Koepka holds all the cards here, and a course that is clearly dying to crown the best ball-striker is great news for him. He won’t roll in long-distance putts for eagle over the next two days, but if he hits driver like he did on Friday (“I ball-struck my way around this golf course”), he won’t have to.
It’s a big-time stage, and Kiawah Island is an absolute menace, so it makes total sense that Koepka would contend, even if his knee troubles did not foreshadow that fact coming in. The closer it gets to crunch time with him at the very top, the more inevitable a fifth major championship appears. That’s what Koepka’s history has trained us to think, whether it comes to fruition or not. And if he hits it for two more days like he did on Friday, it almost certainly will.
Rick Gehman and Greg DuCharme break down and react to Friday’s second round action at the PGA Championship. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
2. King Louis: Thru 17 holes, it looked like Oosthuizen was going to be around 9-10 shots better than his afternoon wave (more on that below). He bogeyed the last to shoot 68, which was one of just four rounds in the 60s on Friday and eight better than the afternoon wave average. Oosthuizen made it look a lot easier than it actually was and actually rated the Ocean Course an 8 of 10 in terms of difficulty after his round. Oosthuizen still has just one PGA Tour win, but he has eight top 10s at majors, and six of those are top-three finishes. The juxtaposition of his silkiness against Mickelson’s laborious effort to hit seeds on Saturday will create immense depth to the final pairing. Also, they’re two of the more notorious runner-up golfers in modern golf.
3. How far is too far? Last year, Collin Morikawa trailed Haotong Li by six going into Saturday’s third round. That’s as deep as anyone has been over the last eight years. This year’s six-back cutoff includes Will Zalatoris, Bubba Watson, Cam Smith and Lee Westwood.
4. Cameron Tringale, out in 48: Tringale started his second round on the 10th hole. He went to the 14th tee box 3 under with a real chance at contending for his first major (and first PGA Tour win). Life comes at you fast. He closed 6-4-10-7-5 to turn in 48 (!) and ended up shooting 82 (kind of remarkable!) to miss the cut after playing so wonderfully for 22 holes over the first two days. It’s sad, yes, but it’s also instructive as to just how difficult this course and this game actually can be.
5. The Canadian is still a factor: Even though he shot 75 on Friday, which undoubtedly feels lousy, Corey Conners is still very much in the mix at 2 under. That’s why you did all the work on Thursday — to give yourself some wiggle room going into the weekend. The bigger problem for Conners than his score on Friday is the fact that he has not quite hit the ball as well as he normally does and is being buoyed by a scorching putter (as evidenced by the fact that he made a 30-footer early on Friday that kept him from starting his round with six straight bogeys). He’ll need to step on the gas from tee to green a bit on Saturday afternoon.
6. Hideki slam? Don’t look now, but Hideki Matsuyama bogeyed the last to get in at 4 under on the day and 3 under on the week. The harder the wind blows, the better he plays, and somebody who I was unsure would ever win one major might threaten to win two in a row to start 2021. He also bogeyed the last — like Oosthuizen — to shoot 67.
7. The woeful putter: Remember when Jordan Spieth’s reputation was as the best putter in the world? If he was half of who everyone thought he used to be this year, he would have won the Masters and might be leading this PGA Championship. A three-putt for bogey on No. 9 ended his day on Friday, and he’s one of just two golfers of those who rank in the top 35 from tee to green this week who is 4 over or worse. He’ll play early on Saturday, and if they start falling, we could have a situation on our hands.
8. Better wave? Speaking of the wind, let’s discuss which side of the draw was the better side of the draw to be on. If you started late-early, the course played 6.24 over par over the first two rounds. The early-late draw was 6.32, so there was not much difference, even though the scoring average early in the afternoon really ballooned a lot (probably due to that wild Tringale card). What’s maybe more intriguing is how much these conditions have shaped this board into a major championship-like board. There are only a smattering of pretenders in the top 20, and they’ll likely be ejected early on Saturday. If you don’t hit the hell out of it, you have very little chance come the weekend at a place like the Ocean Course. I thought that coming in, and Friday bore it out, even more so than most major championship venues.
9. Big Golfer lurking: For a while, it looked like we might get a Bryson DeChambeau-Brooks Koepka pairing in Saturday’s third round, which would have been insane. DeChambeau faded quite a bit late as he wrestled with every bit of the property over the last five holes and spit out something about a “stupid course” as he was making bogey on No. 18. Here’s the dirty little secret of his first two rounds, though: He has not putted at all. DeChambeau is currently fourth in the field from tee to green and 119th (!!) in putting. That’s not going to hold, and I think we’re talking about his chances to win on Saturday night.