Twin towers of Koepka and Rose plotting to leave Open rivals in the shade
It was the powerhouse pairing of the day, a double act splicing a former world No 1 with the man who has won four of the last nine majors he has entered. As befitting their stature, Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose plotted their way through the field like furtive predators, seeking the perfect moment to strike.
For the past two years, no golfer on the planet has proved more skilful in the art of hunting than Koepka, whose metronomic play is the product of his freakishly measured pulse under pressure. His round yesterday was a classic of the genre, lacking pyrotechnics but leaving him in with a chance of a fifth major title that would tie him with Phil Mickelson and Seve Ballesteros.
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Rose has his own priorities, conscious that on consistency alone he should have added by now to the solitary US Open he won at Merion six years ago.
In the company of Koepka, his charge ignited yesterday, with an eagle-birdie burst at the 11th and 12th throwing him into the thick of the fight. At Carnoustie 12 months ago, Rose finally improved on his previous best finish at the Open, the fourth place that he had sealed with a pitch-in at Royal Birkdale as a green, gangly teenager. His life looks very different now, thanks to a sprawling mansion in the Bahamas and an estimated €35m in the bank. Today, he has perhaps his best chance to seize a prize he has spent more than half a lifetime coveting.
At 38, he has little doubt as to how crucial it could be for his career.
"The next one is really important for me, because it makes the next two feel possible," he reflected here at Royal Portrush. "When you're a quarter of the way there, looking at it, it's quite an uphill climb. But when you're halfway, you're at the tipping point."
For the best part of a year, Rose and Koepka have been battling fiercely for the No 1 ranking. This duel, though, pitched them against each other in pursuit of a far more precious, tangible prize. Many can be intimidated by Koepka's musclebound dominance of the game, but Rose, the reigning Olympic champion, is not one of them. When the American terrified the opposition by streaking out to a seven-shot lead at this summer's US PGA, Rose shrugged: "If we had to play Bethpage Black every tournament for the rest of time, I'd be concerned. But we don't."
As he hit the back nine yesterday, Rose timed his charge to perfection, picking up four shots in the space of four holes while Koepka slipped back. In the context of recent history in Majors, it could be counted as a significant achievement: he had faced down the most ruthless performer in the business and prevailed. There is one striking parallel between the two, in terms of the lengths they will go to peak for the grandest tournaments.
The contrast that Koepka's last four Major results - first, second, first, second - form with his often anonymous showings in regular tour events is no accident.
"I only practise before the majors," he explained, with tongue only slightly in cheek. "For regular tournaments I don't practise. It's around the majors that I like to play the week before and find a rhythm."
Rose has adapted his preparations in similar fashion, neglecting to play for four weeks before Portrush in protest at this season's ultra-condensed major schedule.
On the evidence of his surge up the leaderboard, few could question his wisdom. Koepka, for his part, has come to accept his casting as the dead-eyed assassin, grudgingly admired but seldom loved. Sometimes, he has been enraged by the lack of respect, calling a decision by Fox Sports to omit him from this year's US Open publicity "mind-boggling".
Ludicrously, Koepka was not even the favourite for this tournament. Once, that might have riled him, but he has increasingly learned not to be bothered by acclaim - or the absence of it. "You either like me or you don't," he said. "That's true for life in general, and it's not anything I'm too concerned about at the moment. I'm literally just focused on golf."
Koepka is coming for them again. Rose, for one, is desperate to script an alternative ending.