LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman said earlier this week that if one of his gang of rebels heads up the stretch in contention they will all gather on the 18th to celebrate. While Masters Sunday is still a while off, Brooks Koepka is currently on track to make that vengeance party a reality.
The American defector surged up the leaderboard to card an opening round of 65 Thursday, snatching a share of the lead and raining on PGA Tour loyalists Viktor Hovland and Jon Rahm’s parade.
Just two months ago, Netflix’s Full Swing docuseries showed the four-time major bemoaning his lack of recent success on golf’s biggest stages before jumping ship to the Saudi-backed series last year.
And, for all the backlash LIV has received for its smaller fields and perceived lack of quality, it seems to have done Koepka the world of good.
Koepka has gone from the bleached-blonde self-doubter of last year to a player with every chance of slipping into the Green Jacket.
LIV Golf rebel Brooks Koepka caused an upset on Day One, carding a 65 to share the lead
The American played an almost blemish-free round with just the sole bogey at elongated 13
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman claimed his rebels will gather at 18 if one of them wins on Sunday
Unbelievably, he could owe it to Norman and his breakaway. It’s always been said that Koepka is devilishly hard to stop when his confidence is sky high and off the back of his win at LIV’s Masters warmup event in Orlando last week, he is back to winning ways.
Carrying that momentum to Augusta National with him, he carded eight birdies to fly the LIV flag high with a sole bogey on the elongated 13 the only blemish on his card.
I’m very focused, disciplined, driven,’ Koepka said afterward. ‘There’s only really a couple things I care about; going to work out and going to play golf, and that’s it when we’re here.
‘Nothing else really matters. It’s full focus on this and trying to walk out of here with a green jacket. Get myself in contention with nine to go on Sunday. That´s the whole goal.’
Others in the LIV contingent included reigning British Open champion Cameron Smith, who started the Masters with a 70, and Patrick Reed with a 71. Then there was two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, who struggled to a 77.
But their ranks took a hit. There won’t be 17 gathered around the 18th to welcome in a LIV winner in Norman’s fairytale ending after Kevin Na was forced to withdraw after his first nine due to illness, leaving 2003 champion Mike Weir to finish solo.
Hovland’s shirt was flashy but thankfully for him, so was his game. The 25-year-old Norwegian, who won low amateur in 2019, barely put a foot wrong and when he did he leaned on his short game to bail himself out, going five for five in scrambling.
But Rahm’s 65 was especially impressive after he opened with a four-putt double bogey on the first hole.
Kopeka shares the lead alongside Norwegian Viktor Hovland (left) and Jon Rahm (right)
The Spaniard played the remaining holes in a remarkable 9-under par, tallying seven birdies and an eagle.
Rory McIlroy will hope his Euro pals can prevail over LIV’s leader. The thought of a rebel slipping into the Green Jacket come Sunday is sure to set the Saudi-backed series’s biggest critic’s blood boiling – especially after his opening round.
The Northern Irishman toiled through the tougher Georgia weather in the afternoon with his career Grand Slam quest once again getting off to an underwhelming start.
While McIlroy doesn’t appear to have any personal vendetta against Koepka – having played a practice round with him on Tuesday – a win for the American would still be a win for LIV and Norman and absolutely not the point the PGA Tour’s de facto leader would want to make at the defector’s first return to Augusta since jumping ship.
Defending champion Scottie Scheffler will be heading into the clubhouse slightly frustrated, despite his title defense being under no threat after a four-under 68.
The unassuming Texan couldn’t get the flatstick hot, seeing several birdie chance slip by.
Instead of cruising into the lead, he was shown his way around Augusta by amateur Sam Bennett, who matched, and even led, the World No. 1, during his Masters debut, not once looking out of place alongside Scheffler or Max Homa.
Meanwhile, Tiger Woods was left hot under the collar as he grinded he way around his beloved Augusta to no avail.
Scottie Scheffler’s title defense isn’t under threat but it was a round of frustration for the Texan
The five-time champion teed it up in his 25th Masters appearance at his beloved Augusta National for the second time since his horror car crash in February 2021 after making a miraculous return to the Georgia course last year.
And the undulating Georgia course appeared to take its toll on the 47-year-old but it didn’t seem to be his surgically repaired right leg that caused him trouble but rather the greens.
The putts weren’t dropping for the five-time winner. In fact, he barely got in tight enough to give himself many looks at birdie.
There was a glimmer of hop on 15 and 16 as he finally began to hear the chirping around Augusta but a bogey to finish saw him head into the clubhouse at two-over.