Brooks Koepka, still basking in glow of PGA win, has issues in LIV return

Brooks Koepka sauntered up the fairway to the No. 1 tee box Friday afternoon at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, site of this week’s LIV Golf debut in the Washington metropolitan area, waving to a crowd shouting his name as “Welcome to the Jungle” blared over the sound system.

Wearing a white polo, cap and blue shorts, his gait was that of someone seemingly without a care less than a week removed from winning the PGA Championship. Then he pulled an iron out of his black bag, set his golf ball on a tee and launched his first shot in a tournament since claiming a fifth major title.

So it went over the next four holes until he struck his tee shot at No. 6, a 445-yard par 4, and began inspecting the face of his driver. Koepka noticed a small crack on the club head, and suddenly the leisurely walk brimmed with concern.

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He managed to regroup, however, on the back nine, where he eventually deployed a fresh driver and carded a pair of birdies to finish even-par 72, eight shots behind leader Harold Varner III at the 54-hole tournament with 12 teams of four players.

“It feels like you’re hitting a marshmallow, honestly,” Koepka said. “It’s a weird feeling. Feels like you’re hitting it on the bottom half of the club. I don’t know how much damage [is enough to be allowed a replacement], or whatever word they used. It’s just weird.”

Koepka continued to examine the club on the sixth hole before pulling out his cellphone. His caddie, Ricky Elliott, also was having a conversation on his cellphone, and shortly thereafter a member of Koepka’s team delivered a new driver to the No. 6 green.

But before Koepka could break in the new equipment, a rules official informed the first player to participate in a LIV Golf tournament immediately after winning a major championship that he wasn’t permitted to replace the driver at that time.

The official informed Koepka the damage needed to be “significant” to be permitted a replacement club. After the conversation, Koepka gave the backup driver to another member of his team to keep close by.

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At the tee at No. 7, Koepka had the compromised club in hand as he stared down the fairway of the 583-yard par 5, the longest hole on the front nine of a layout that covers almost 7,700 yards and requires even the game’s mightiest hitters, of which Koepka is one, to use driver.

His tee ball at the seventh drifted right almost instantly after contact and landed in the second cut of rough, making the bear of a hole all the more demanding. Koepka made par, then missed the fairway again at Nos. 8 and 9, directing his gaze at his driver face with each errant swipe.

“Golf’s a little bit behind the times in ruling,” he said. “Like, if it’s cracked, just replace it. If you damage it, you’re, I get it, out of anger or anything like that. I don’t know. You know it’s broken. Everybody agreed on that. It’s just the rule.”

Relief finally materialized for Koepka in the fairway at No. 11, when he again approached the same rules official to show the club had taken on more damage. This time Koepka was granted the replacement driver, and he proceeded to uncork one of his best drives of the round.

Still, the equipment malfunction was but a blip during a week in which Koepka has been living his best life since the PGA.

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Before arriving in Northern Virginia, Koepka spent Monday night cheering his hometown Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup playoffs at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Fla. Koepka wore a Panthers jersey and sat in a box with the Wanamaker Trophy.

The next night he sat courtside with wife Jena Sims at Kaseya Center in Miami for Game 4 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals between the Heat and the Boston Celtics.

“It’s just part of it, right, just getting back to somewhat of a normal routine,” said Koepka, who arrived Thursday to play the course for the first time in the pro-am. “It was good just to play golf and kind of get it out of the way, hopefully play better the next few days knowing the golf course a little bit more, know where to hit it, where to miss it.”

Sunday’s win at Oak Hill was Koepka’s first major triumph since the 2019 PGA Championship. His three PGA Championships (tied with Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead) trail only Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus, each with five, and Tiger Woods with four.

Koepka also trails only Woods and Phil Mickelson, one of the earliest and highest-profile defectors to LIV Golf, in major championship victories since 1990.

“I think Cam [Smith] said it best at Augusta. He said, ‘It’s important for the LIV guys to show up,’ ” Varner said of the impact of Koepka’s win at a major. “It’s not about just getting in. I thought that was really good. It helped me just get my mind right, like we’re here to play well. It’s kind of cool when you’re not playing for just yourself.”

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