Tuesday 25 June 2019

Koepka leaves rest on salvage mission

Irish trio fight hard for weekend redemption as record-breaker sets blistering pace in PGA

Rory McIlroy plays from the seventh tee during the third round of the US PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. Photo: Warren Little. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy plays from the seventh tee during the third round of the US PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. Photo: Warren Little. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Players know. From the experience of tournament rounds in all sorts of conditions, they know what should be possible at a given venue when everything goes according to plan and the putter is wonderfully productive.

The really good ones like Rory McIlroy will have a special feel for such imponderables. Which is why you could imagine his bemusement at what Brooks Koepka has been doing in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, though he wouldn't dare admit it.

The very idea of shooting the lowest 36-hole score in Major championship history on such a brutally difficult course must stretch credulity, even for the best of the best. Probably the most acceptable consequence of rounds of 63 and 65 (128) was that Koepka's halfway lead of seven strokes was the largest in a Major since World War II.

Maybe it's time to apply one of the game's most celebrated observations to a current context. I'm thinking of the record aggregate of 271 by Jack Nicklaus for a nine-stroke victory over Arnold Palmer and Gary Player in the 1965 Masters, which prompted the tournament's founder, Bobby Jones, to famously remark: "He plays a game with which I am not familiar."

It was important for McIlroy to rally with a back-nine of 31 on Friday, simply to avoid missing the cut at a Major which he last experienced in the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills. That, interestingly, was when Koepka emerged victorious in a Major for the first time.

"I don't like missing cuts," the Holywood star said simply. "I've tried to get something that's close to the best out of myself because I wanted to be around for the weekend. That way, you can go out there and maybe shoot a good one and at least give yourself half a chance."

Morale is crucial to him right now, especially in view of what happened at Augusta National last month when he clearly succumbed to the pressure of pursuing the career Grand Slam. By comparison, Koepka looks to be the essence of cool, which McIlroy will also have observed.

Indeed the American's coach, Claude Harmon, felt moved to ask his charge how he managed to keep such a tight rein on his emotions. "Pressure is self-inflicted," came the reply. "The only one who can put pressure on me is me." Arguably the most impressive aspect of a seriously impressive overall game was Koepka's ability to keep the ball in play along unusually tight fairways, despite drives smashed an average of 302 yards.

By comparison, McIlroy's main problems at Bethpage have been off the tee. And when he found clinging rough, he couldn't resist the temptation of taking that extra club to try and squeeze some extra distance, which generally wasn't forthcoming. In such circumstances, it was inevitable that additional pressure would come on his putting.

He added: "It's not as if I haven't been in those positions before. It's just a matter of not pressing too much and staying patient and letting the good golf sort of come through."

Which it certainly did, on the outward journey of the third round. Finding the middle of the fairway at the long fourth, he had a simple second to the elevated green and proceeded to set up a sparkling, eagle three. Then came another beautiful iron shot at the short eighth, where a birdie got him to level-par for the championship.

That was when we could see McIlroy's problems extend beyond the driver. From a perfect launch off the difficult 10th, he ended up making a bogey and in similar circumstances at the 12th, he had to get up and down to save par. And another drive found the rough at the long 13th before signing for 69.

Two other Irish challengers survived the cut. The fourth, Pádraig Harrington, who was in the field as Europe's current Ryder Cup captain, and the PGA champion of 2008, missed the cut by four strokes after a second-round 77 on Friday.

As the shortest hitter of the quartet, it was revealing to hear Graeme McDowell express the view that he had no problem trying to compete with Koepka.

"If he's hitting five-iron, I'm happy enough to hit five-wood or three-iron," he said. "But what I like is that no one can play this course from the rough."

For the most part, he managed to do so effectively yesterday, although three bogeys in the last four holes saw him slump to a 73. In only a month, he will be back at Pebble Beach, scene of his glorious US Open triumph of 2010, and while the level of expectation has eased with the passing years, McDowell's competitive instincts still burn brightly.

Then there is the desire to qualify for the Open Championship in his native Portrush a month later, a challenge for which he will welcome any lift in form from whatever source.

With a birdie at the second hole yesterday, Lowry improved no fewer than 11 places on the leaderboard, as an indication of the headway possible for the early starters. Playing steadily from there, he went back to level-par for the round with a bogey at the testing, short eighth.

On the more difficult homeward journey, he proceeded to birdie the 11th, where arrow-straight driving showed him what was possible at Bethpage. And another birdie at the short 14th swept him further up the leaderboard.

From there, he covered the remainder of the journey in level par for an admirable 68, leaving him level-par for the championship, while heightening the enjoyment factor in weekend sunshine.

Perhaps most significant of all, was the quiet lift it gave to confidence which was seriously dented for Lowry through his last-round collapse in the US Open at Oakmont three years ago.

"It set me back quite a bit," conceded the Offaly man. "That's why this weekend is important to me."

He went on: "I've played quite nicely over the last two days but I gave the course too much respect on Thursday. If you get the putter going, these are probably the best greens we've played all year."

This weekend is also highly significant as the 10th anniversary of his stunning Irish Open triumph at Baltray. "No matter what I do in golf, that will probably remain my finest achievement," he said yesterday.

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