Takeaways from the 2023 Masters: Is the Brooks Koepka revival real? Jon Rahm’s resilience makes Round 1 history

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Two months ago, Brooks Koepka pouted and sulked through a riveting episode portraying the 2022 Masters in the Netflix special, “Full Swing.” The denouement came when he shot 75-75 in the first two rounds, missed the cut and lamented, “I’m going to be honest with you guys, I can’t compete with these guys week after week.”

Thursday at the 2023 Masters, just a year after a desperate Koepka looked like he was cooked as a major championship golfer, he completed his best round at Augusta National with an eight-birdie 65. He sits tied for the lead with Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland after 18 holes.

“Anytime with something like that, you don’t see everything, do you?” Koepka said of the notable episode. “A lot of it, it’s all injury-based.”

Koepka looked reasonably healthy heading into last year’s Masters, notching four top-20 finishes in six starts prior to this event. He insists he is much healthier now, maybe even close to his old 100% self.

“Once you feel good,” he said, “everything changes.”

What’s interesting about this is the data. Following a missed cut at the 2021 Masters – it was the infamous one in which he came in three weeks after surgery and had to extend his leg sideways as he tried to read putts – Koepka actually crashed the rest of the majors, finishing T2, T4 and T6 consecutively. It was the year he narrowly lost to Phil Mickelson at the PGA Championship in Kiawah, just two months after the operation.

So wait a second, did his knee get worse in 2022 (when Netflix’s desperate episode happened and his best finish in the majors was a T55) than he was in 2021 two months after the operation? But now it’s healthy again?

That’s what Koepka seems to be implying.

“It’s a new normal,” Koepka said of his health, “but it’s definitely pretty close 1680833460 what it was [when I was younger].”

Koepka has always been a bit ambiguous with his injuries, often deviating and emphasizing the dramatic over the actual timeline. On Thursday, he said at one point, “I dislocated my knee and then tried to put it back on.” He even said in the fall that he was eventually going to need a right knee replacement.

So what’s going on here? What’s at the bottom of it all? Why all this misdirection in the discussion around his knee?

I have a theory: Brooks Koepka is terribly afraid of failure. Like the rest of us. It’s just that his fear of failure plays out on bigger stages and has bigger historical stakes than ours. It is a difficult concept to manage.

Koepka built himself up to be a generational threat during his 2017-19 Majors streak, and that became his whole aura. He always exuded that “do you have any idea how easy it is for me to be this tall?” move that has closed so many big boy tournaments. It was convincing, and he liked the fact that he knew other people knew it.

But when it went wrong at the end of the 2019 PGA Championship (even if he won) and at the end of the 2020 PGA Championship (when he didn’t) and at the end of the 2021 PGA Championship ( when a 51-year-old Phil Mickelson spiked him in the Atlantic), his own failure – what scared him most, the price he couldn’t afford – set in.

So now sometimes what you see is someone who is surly, someone who has existential fear, and someone who has convinced themselves that the only What keeps him out of other major leagues is an element of his game that he usually can’t control: his health.

It may be true. Maybe no one can beat Koepka when he’s healthy. But is he even healthy now? He claims to be, and he won’t change his tune this week. But if he doesn’t follow up on a real row or a Masters win this weekend, it could be easy to look back on this week (when he shot 66 in the first round of the US Open) with Kopeka convincing himself, Oh, well, I don’t want Really healthy in Augusta. Especially because, when you need a knee replacement, you are Never really healthy.

Success has a strange way of making us doubt ourselves, and hurts — like the ones Koepka no doubt struggles to overcome — become an easy place to shift blame to. The comedic level of self-confidence players must maintain almost necessitates it. But remember: Koepka showed us his ceiling at this PGA 2021 just two months after the operation. He was still doing rehab during this PGA but called it off, saying he could handle the pain. He won almost everything.

Koepka’s struggles seem to run a bit deeper than the physical, anyway. There’s a name for it: impostor syndrome. And it’s a fairly common theme, especially among those who have had a high level of success like Koepka. That Netflix episode from a year ago… some of it may have been about injuries, but it sure seemed like it was about so much more than that. You don’t talk about what’s going on in Scottie Scheffler’s head if you’re just dealing with an injury.

I can’t shake the sight of Koepka, on the dock at the end of her episode, staring out to sea, wondering what her future held. So far, he’s holding no one ahead of him at this year’s Masters. In a past life, Koepka’s name at the top of a leaderboard like this would have engendered fear in everyone else in the tournament. Now, I wonder if that doesn’t raise some of his people.

Here are some additional thoughts on Round 1.

Jon Rahm’s rebound

After hitting a double bogey 6 on the first hole, Rahm has played the last 17 at Augusta National on 59 strokes, gained 8.0 strokes from tee to green and is tied for the lead with Koepka and Hovland. It was the lowest score to reach for any golfer in Masters history who started his game with a double bogey or worse. This extraordinary juxtaposition of the first hole versus the next 17 is emblematic of who Rahm is in the big leagues, and it’s a reminder that he doesn’t get enough credit for his resilient mental game. Rahm has received plenty of criticism over the years for his temper (sometimes, rightly so), but he should also receive praise for his ability to endure a jarring start and climb to the top of the leaderboard.

“If you’re going to make a double or four putts or whatever, that might as well be the first hole,” Rahm said. “[You have] 71 holes to catch up. Afterwards, it was over, I was focused on the fact that all the shots were good. The readings were good. The roll was good. Obviously the speed was bad on the first two putts so once I kind of accepted there was really nothing to look into I got to work and had 17 holes to go catch up.”

Sam Bennett first round show

Bennett could be who we thought Gordon Sargent would be. Bennett opened 3-4 on the first two holes and held on tight. The American amateur champion is mega-talented, although Sargent entered the week with a lot more hype. And while some of the shots Sargent hit had me gasping out loud on the golf course, Thursday anyway was Trackman golfer versus golfer putting the ball in the hole. It’s certainly not as pretty as Sargent, but Bennett looked like he belonged to the No. 1 player in the world, who he played (and tied) with in the first round.

Top 10 of the 1st round

Since 2005, only Tiger Woods has come out of the top 10 after the first round of the Masters to win the tournament. If this stat holds – and I believe it will – your Master winner will be one of the following golfers:

  • Victor Hovland
  • Jon Rahm
  • Brooks Koepka
  • Cameron Young
  • Jason Day
  • Shane Lowry
  • Xander Schauele
  • Adam Scott
  • Gary Woodland
  • Scottie Scheffler
  • Sam Bennett
  • Sam Burns

Spieth: Crazy in the membrane

Spieth’s trick can be summed up in a quote and a screenshot.

Here’s the quote: “I made seven birdies, so I wish I had posted a lower number.”

This is the most Spieth of all Spieth quotes.

And here’s the screenshot after Spieth hit his approach on No. 13 into Rae’s Creek.

Spieth shot 32 to the front, and you knew it was going to get weird from there. Of course he did. He hit it in the water on No. 11, then again on his approach at No. 13, playing Amen Corner in 3 over. It was typical for Spieth, then, to birdie two of his last four to bring his round down to 3 under, keeping him in the mix. It’s the fourth time he’s opened with a round in the ’60s at Augusta. In the other three, he finished in the top three.

Scottie vs. Rahm

This is what the tournament will be all about. Scheffler shot the easiest 68 you’ve ever seen in your life, winning 7.9 shots from tee to green and finishing second-to-last of the field in putting. It’s not going to happen all week, and when the flat stick starts to click, he’s going to do what he’s been doing for 15 straight months and start putting distance between himself and the pitch. Rahm, it seems, is the only one who can keep up.

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