BRADENTON, Fla. — Brooks Koepka hit one his worst tee shots of the day that barely cleared the water on the 15th hole. That turned out to be the start of three straight birdies that led to a 6-under 66 and a one-shot lead Friday in the Workday Championship.
In some respects, that’s how his recent surge has been.
Coming off a pair of missed cuts, Koepka won the Phoenix Open to end an 18-month drought. And now he’s starting to hit his stride with the first major of the year creeping up quickly.
Koepka hit a chip 9-iron to 6 feet for birdie on No. 15, nearly holed his wedge on the next hole and then birdied the par-5 17th with a splendid bunker shot across the ridges and down the slope to tap-in range.
He closed with a bogey by avoiding a deceptive pin near the water on the closing hole at The Concession. Koepka, who finished at 11-under 133, had a one-shot lead over Cameron Smith, Billy Horschel and PGA champion Collin Morikawa, who made up ground quick with six birdies over his last 10 holes.
“Usually I can never find my game until The Players. That’s kind of when it starts to feel like it’s coming around,” Koepka said. “But the fact that it’s here a little bit early is nice.”
Koepka spent most of his offseason with trainer Derek Stone in San Diego, saying he has not spent more than about 25 days at his home in South Florida since August. It was all about getting his left knee healthy, and his game looks as good as his health.
A dozen players were separated by five shots going into the weekend of this World Golf Championship, which moved from Mexico City this year because of COVID-19 circumstances and is providing a vastly different test.
Players have gone from mile-high altitude to flat Florida, with fairways lined with water hazards and palmetto bushes and greens with wild slopes and contours.
Even with a 71-man field, the difference between first and last was a whopping 22 shots.
Morikawa matched the low score of the tournament with a 64. The other 64 belonged to U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, who was 13 shots better than the opening round.
“It’s just a tale of golf. You can have both ends of the stick,” DeChambeau said. “I didn’t play terrible yesterday, I just didn’t get anything going my way, especially on that back nine. Had some bad mistakes and that’s what happened. I made some good putts and good strokes today that just luck went my way today.”
Defending champion Patrick Reed had three straight birdies to start the front nine after he made the turn, the last one coming after he topped a 3-wood in the fairway into a bunker, and blasted that out from 142 yards to 4 feet.
And then he had two bogeys, hitting his drive into the water on No. 5 when his left foot slipped, and hitting into the water on the par-4 eighth with a shot he feared would be a little long and instead came up woefully short.
Reed was three shots behind.
The strangest day belonged to Viktor Hovland, who was 7 under for his round and playing flawlessly until one hole at the end ruined it. From a fairway bunker on the par-4 ninth, Hovland went right into the pine straw. His chip went across the green into a bunker, leaving a tough shot that he sent back across the green into the woods that led to a penalty drop.
He didn’t get that one up to the green, pitched to 10 feet and holed that for a quadruple-bogey 8.
“It’s mainly the second shot in the bunker that’s a little bitter,” Hovland said. “That’s costing me four shots right there just that second shot. I hit a lot of good shots today and made a lot of putts, so it’s just unfortunate that one terrible shot comes at that time.”
Dustin Johnson was only slightly better. The world’s No. 1 player, who opened with a 77, had only one big penalty. He tried to drive the 12th green on the 308-yard 12th hole protected by a massive bunker complex. This went too far left into the bushes. He hit another drive into the bunker and got that up and down from 100 feet to at least save bogey.
Still, Johnson had to settle for a 69 and was 13 shots behind.
Jon Rahm, who opened with a 68, went the other direction. He ran off four straight bogeys on the back nine, mostly due to his short game and then a tee shot too far left that went into the water on the par-5 17th. Just when he was starting to turn it around, he went from the bunker into the water on the par-4 fifth for a double bogey. He shot 76 and was 11 back.
Rory McIlroy was stuck in neutral, trading seven birdies with three bogeys and one big mistake when his bunker shot to lay up on the par-5 seventh hit the lip and caromed to the right into the pine straw. It took five shots to get to the green, and then he missed a 6-foot putt and made double bogey. McIlroy shot 70 and was six behind.