Brooks Koepka hadn’t even stepped foot on the range in Farmingdale but his overnight lead at the PGA Championship had stretched to four shots. The longer the grey Long Island day bore on, the further it seemed they would fall. Danny Lee of underdog joy, starting just one shot behind Koepka, endured a giddy collapse. Jon Rahm cratered in Basque fury, Bryson DeChambeau in a scientific daze.
But it was Rory McIlroy, beginning with the most tentative hopes after closing with a birdie yesterday, who endured the most ramshackle day, slicing into the thickset brush off the very first tee. Four hacks later and eventually, he found the grace of the green for a double bogey.
It had been a year built on such peaceful promise by the Northern Irishman. The series of top-10 finishes and a cathartic victory at the Players Championship, before his newfound feng shui unravelled and left furniture strayed across the room. His performance at Augusta was underwhelming, anticlimactic, but by no means a misery.
Here, though, as his ball plunged into the bottomless depths of Bethpage Black’s long grass on that first hole, the type of torturous pothole that eats away at the poor driver, there was a sense of despair. The tens of thousands of New Yorkers ominously silent, the loom of a draining road ahead as he added another three shots to his tally over the course of the next two holes.
But at the death, as he seemed destined to succumb to a fourth cut at a major in as many years, he summoned a last-drawn breath. A streak of three birdies that teased all senses of what could have been and helped to prevent the embarrassment of making an early bow. By the end of today, they may well have just prevented his early departure.
It seemed that Koepka, after a devastating performance yesterday that detoothed even Tiger Woods, might run to a rampant victory unseen since his playing partner’s pinnacle. But there was at least a sniff of competition which emerged from the woodwork that lines this hazardous course.
Jordan Spieth had snapped back when a journalist casually referred to his slump at a pre-tournament press conference, insisting his patch at the doldrums had met its bobbing end.
A stunning inward nine to complete a 66 and move to within eyeshot of Koepka vindicated those claims. It was by no means the Spieth who emerged as the sport’s golden starlet, but there was still a returning glimmer.
“I feel like I have good control of the club, good timing, good rhythm and it was nice to roll in a few putts,” Spieth said afterwards. “This golf course, you can’t (force it). It requires more patience which feeds into what I’m trying to do.
“I’ve been focusing on progress rather than being results orientated, but I’m certainly going to compete and my ultimate goal for the week is to be there on the back-nine on Sunday.”
Alongside him, Dustin Johnson too just about kept pace. A concoction of raw power, bludgeoning drives and a deceivingly gentle short game that saw him charge into a five-under-par spree over the course of seven holes. He too lurks with credible intent.
And it was Matthew Fitzpatrick, the promising, baby-faced Englishman who conjured one of the day’s finest performances, carding a five-under-par 65 to leave himself on even par. That, though, was seven shots back of Koepka. And his second round had not even begun.
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