PGA Championship: Can Brooks Koepka really be ‘the next Tiger Woods?’

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — As Brooks Koepka lined up one final birdie on the 18th green on Friday, one overboisterious fan leaned over the metal railing and made his feelings known.

“That’s the next Tiger Woods!” he screamed. “That’s the next Tiger Woods!”

The fact that Woods was still drawing more cheers than Koepka on Friday shows that no one will ever be the next Tiger Woods. But Koepka is doing a damn good imitation with the clubs in his bag. Over two days and in front of Woods himself, Koepka has put Bethpage Black and the rest of the PGA Championship field into a Tiger-like stranglehold.

Koepka is currently an unthinkable 12-under, seven shots ahead of the nearest competitors, after posting a second-round 65 to go with his opening round 63. If the 29-year-old has previously complained about not getting enough attention for his back-to-back U.S. Open wins and last year’s PGA Championship title, well, that shouldn’t be a problem after setting a 36-hole major scoring record and drawing up a two-day victory parade.

Lift the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday and he’ll have won four of the last eight majors.

Asked in the interview room if Long Island golf fans had watched a passing of the torch from Woods, Koepka deferred the question.

While he publicly wondered earlier in the week why he couldn’t reach a double-digit total in major victories, he wasn’t quite ready to put himself in the territory of Woods’ total of 15 major victories.

“ I mean, I've got 11 more to go …”

The three-time major winner quickly caught himself presuming this weekend’s victory and corrected himself.

“Twelve more to go before that happens,” Koepka said.

Woods, however, won’t be around to see the presumptive No. 4. After winning last month’s Masters, he battled an illness early this week and could never quite shake off the rust while playing with Koepka and reigning British Open champion Francesco Molinari.

Brooks Koepka greets spectators as he walks down to the 15th tee during the second round of the PGA Championship golf tournament, Friday, May 17, 2019, at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Brooks Koepka greets spectators as he walks down to the 15th tee during the second round of the PGA Championship. (AP)

Woods had a chance to make the cut at +4 with a birdie on 18, but his approach shot spun back to the front fringe and he failed to sink the chip shot he needed as a large plane rumbled overheard.

After the round, Woods found Koepka and returned the praise that Koepka had offered him outside the scoring room at Augusta National. The two are friends and Woods was happy to marvel at what the man 14 years his junior is doing right now.

“He’s driving it 330 yards in the middle of the fairway. He's got 9-irons when most of us are hitting 5-irons, 4-irons, and he's putting well,” Woods told the media in a news conference that was more about Koepka’s brilliance than his own struggles at Bethpage. “That adds up to a pretty substantial lead, and if he keeps doing what he's doing, there's no reason why he can't build on this lead.”

There’s still some drama left in this weekend, though it most likely concerns Koepka fighting for a space in the history books and not fighting off Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott or anybody else.

With only 128 strokes needed to play the first two days, Koepka is in good position to break the 72-hole major scoring record of 264 held by Henrik Stenson at the 2016 British Open and …. Brooks Koepka at last year’s PGA Championship at Bellerive.

A storyline that is less likely but more intriguing is Koepka making a run at the largest margin of victory in a major: Tiger Woods set that record at 15 at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, commonly recognized as the most dominating golf win ever.

Koepka would either have to recreate the first two days, have the field slide further back or a combination of the two to get there, but at this rate, can anyone dismiss the idea outright?

The scary part is that Koepka came into the interview room and sheepishly admitted that he hadn’t played his best golf during the second round. While he matched Thursday’s seven birdies, he posted his first two bogeys of the tournament and had to fight out of the rough in other spots to save par.

“The way I hung in there today and battled it, I think that was probably more impressive than yesterday, not having your A game but still being able to shoot a great score,” Koepka said. “I was very, very pleased with the way I played today.”

With Woods’ $20-million yacht pulling out of a nearby harbor, it’ll be interesting to see if Koepka gets the love and attention he deserves. Like every other player on tour, he was nothing but a set piece in the fairways and on greens as Woods came into the view on screens of smartphones held aloft on Thursday and Friday.

That’s likely to change as Koepka becomes the two-time reigning champion of two different majors and it’s clear that the once-reserved golfer is becoming more comfortable being in the spotlight, which should help his own cause.

Koepka slapped a lot of hands along the ropes as he traveled the back nine and he even made a funny as he sat down at the news conference podium.

While Koepka has famously bristled at playing grab-ass with golf media types, he took the pre-Masters controversy about him spending too much time in the weight room and turned it into a great one-liner. Asked about his ability to hit balls out of the deep rough, Koepka cracked wise.

“That’s why I go to the gym,” he said with a laugh.

The next Tiger Woods? Anyone who tried to bestow that label on Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth after the runs they made on multiple majors knows that it can be a fool’s errand.

Still, Koepka is playing so well that it’s a conversation people want to have or at least scream over the din of the 18th hole.

Over two dominating days in New York, Brooks Koepka has made himself the talk of the town.

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