Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland set the mark at seven under in mid-afternoon, only for Koepka to birdie three of the last four holes to plant the LIV Golf flag on the first day summit with the third 65 of the day
Koepka was a broken golfer a year ago, barely able to stand three weeks after surgery to repair a ruptured patella tendon and shattered right knee cap.
He couldn’t line a putt without flicking his right leg out of the way and missed the cut. Within weeks he was pouring his heart out on Netflix unsure he would ever reach the major heights he hit four times in two years from 2017.
Though under-golfed on the LIV Tour he posted his second victory in the Saudi-backed league a week ago in Orlando and brought that form to bear on the opening day at the Masters.
Koepka is the old order’s worst nightmare, a beast of a golfer who loves nothing more than a bare knuckle set-to on the opponent’s turf.
Were this a boxing ring Koepka, dressed in leopard print robes, would have Don King walking him to the ring to face the heavyweight challenge of Rahm, plus a youthful cohort of powerful hitters in Hovland, Cameron Young and Sam Burns.
Koepka can’t wait but declined to frame the contest in LIV colours. “No this is Masters week, one of four big ones of the year,” he said. “Seven under, I’ll definitely take that but it could have been a lot better.”
The next LIV golfer in the line, Cameron Smith, shot a two under 70 to sit in a tie for 17th. Smith is among 13 top 20 world ranked players in the Masters top 20. Sadly that does not include Rory McIlroy, who opened with an error-strewn 72. McIlroy is the Grand Prix car that keeps stalling on the grid. He needs to shift through the gears to catch the leaders from here.
Masters leaderboard 2023, day 1
After round one:
- T1: Viktor Hovland, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka (-7)
- T4: Cameron Young, Jason Day (-5)
- T6: Xander Schauffele, Adam Scott, Gary Woodland, Sam Bennett, Scottie Scheffler, Sam Burns (-4)
- T13: Justin Rose, Collin Morikawa, Jordan Spieth, Tony Finau (-3)
- T17: Scott Stallings, Chris Kirk, Keegan Bradley, Justin Thomas, Cameron Smith, Sepp Straka, Ryan Fox, Matt Fitzpatrick, Tom Kim (-2)
For the full scorecard see Masters.com
Hovland and Rahm set pace but LIV Golf splits still clear on greens
Viktor by name, victor by Sunday? For his shirt alone Viktor Hovland deserved a green jacket, if only to cover it. Just day one, of course, and Hovland has big Jon Rahm for company on seven under par, a round that would have been a record-equalling 63 had he not doubled the first.
That Rahm should explode all over Augusta National to right the wrong of his schoolboy start was not unexpected. Neither was Hovland’s aggressive romp through the opening round in a shirt that paid a paint-splattered tribute to the surroundings.
With seven wins already, Hovland is readily identified as one of the future stars of the game. He shared a four-shot lead on the final day with Rory McIlroy at the Open Championship nine months ago but fell away on the front nine. He was 24 then. At 25 he seems 10 years older in experience and more robust.
“That Sunday at the Open, I didn’t quite have it. I didn’t make any putts and let the other guys catch up. I would have liked to play that Sunday again this week, that’s for sure. To shoot a 65 out here, you have to have some things go your way but you also have to hit good shots.” And the shirt? “It’s a little bit out there but better than the pink pants I wore last year.” Amen Corner to that.
Rahm responded to the sloppy, four-putt at the first like the Leviathan he is. He was an ant’s toenail from an eagle to gain both shots back at the second. No matter, he was all square by the third with a second successive birdie. A birdie at the seventh, followed by eagle at eight, and the bull of Bilbao was beginning to paw the ground.
There is no finer sight in the game than Rahmbo in full flight. He offers not the pulchritudinous quality of McIlroy’s beautiful best, but you would want him by your side when the night turns ugly and the drunk bloke at the bar asks you for the time. Four birdies over the closing six holes, including the last, took him alongside Hovland, the first hole a distant memory.
“I just had to remember what Seve said, ‘How can your four-putt be that good?’ I have had some good rounds around this course. I just have to be in contention on Sunday.” Ballesteros would have turned 66 on Sunday. Rahm to shoot that number to win? It is written in the Spanish stars.
There were moments, as he laboured through a long opening day, that the idea he might be playing his last clung to the limping Tiger Woods. Bogeys at the third, fifth and seventh felt like weights acting on his soul. A birdie at eight was given back at 11, to fall nine behind the lead being forged by playing partner Hovland. At 30 feet from the hole, a birdie on the banker that is 15 seemed at best unlikely but Woods found the rhythm of his glorious youth with the flat stick to role it in. When a successive birdie followed at 16, you would not have guessed his right leg was held together by scaffold.
He fairly skipped to the 17th tee. There would be another dropped shot at the last but it was not a despondent Woods who signed for a 74, but the warrior he has always been, diminished but not yet defeated.
In the 20 years since it last happened, none had started birdie-eagle, then along came amateur Sam Bennett to make Madisonville, Texas, proud. He held the distinction for precisely six minutes, the time it took Sam Burns to repeat the feat. Burns, ranked No 11 in the world and among the favourites, would add a birdie at the third to reach four under.
The opening day dawned gloomy, which seemed appropriate at a tournament beset by the divisive undercurrents of political revolt. The symbolism was popping when the old guard made its way from the clubhouse to the tee to conduct the ceremonial opening.
As Gary Player, an increasing frail Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson were receiving their guard of honour, Kevin Na – who opened the tournament for real 20 minutes later – plonked his Iron Heads LIV Golf bag on the adjacent green. It might have been a tank. Nine holes into the tournament, Na withdrew citing illness. LIV will be less likely to embrace that as a metaphor on the day the DP World Tour’s right to sanction LIV defectors was formally announced.
An insane consequence of the pickle in which golf finds itself is the exile of Thomas Pieters from the Belgian Open. Too many tournaments on either side of the Atlantic are hanging by a post-pandemic thread. And now a ruling celebrated as a victory by the DP World Tour is, in the Belgian example, a loss with its principal ticket-seller banned from taking part.