ATLANTA – Brooks Koepka has the confidence to pose for nude photos. He has the composure to withstand the final-round pressure in golf’s biggest events. There may not be a more intimidating figure in the game today.
But Koepka admitted that he was “freaking out” about his game on Tuesday. He was in “full-panic mode” on Thursday after sailing a tee shot 75 yards right of the 10th fairway.
And yet, Koepka is the leader at the halfway point of the TOUR Championship. He was trailing Justin Thomas by three shots when play got underway at East Lake. Now Koepka is one stroke ahead of Thomas and Rory McIlroy with 36 holes remaining in the season finale. Xander Schauffele is two back.
After winning three times this season, including a major and World Golf Championship, Koepka has all but clinched a second consecutive Player of the Year Award. He’s two days from authoring the perfect ending to another dominant season.
Koepka said late Friday his game is headed in the right direction heading into the weekend. He made that statement with his words and two 5-irons he hit on East Lake’s closing holes. The first came on the 229-yard 15th, where he laced his tee shot to the middle of the island green to set up a two-putt par on the day’s most difficult hole.
Three holes later, he scared the hole with his 239-yard second shot, leaving himself just 9 feet for eagle. He missed the putt, but the birdie was enough to take the solo lead. Koepka shot 67 in each of the first two rounds at East Lake.
“I feel better. I don’t feel like I’m clicking 100%, but it’s definitely close,” Koepka said. “There are shots where it’s like, ‘How did I just do that?’ And there are some shots where I’m like, ‘Man, why can’t I do that every time,’ like on 18.”
He’ll play alongside Thomas in Saturday’s final group. The pairing will feature the past two PGA TOUR Players of the Year. Two years ago, Thomas’ capped a five-win campaign with a FedExCup triumph. He didn’t win the TOUR Championship, finishing second to Schauffele, but still claimed the season-long prize.
That scenario doesn’t exist anymore. Under this year’s new format, the man atop the leaderboard Sunday afternoon will win both the FedExCup and TOUR Championship.
Thomas shot 70-68 on Thursday and Friday, but is just one back thanks to the starting strokes he was awarded as the leader of the FedExCup. He won last week’s BMW Championship to take the top spot in the FedExCup standings. That earned him a two-stroke lead over the field at the start of the week.
“I thought it was going to be easy for me to just play a tournament. It wasn’t. At least for me it wasn’t,” Thomas said about playing Thursday with a pre-tournament lead. “I thought it was difficult to stay aggressive, but then again, I wasn’t driving it very well, so I couldn’t be aggressive.
“I don’t know, it was odd, but today definitely felt more normal.”
He drove the ball better Friday, but his momentum was interrupted by a weather delay that hit just as the final groups were making the turn. Thomas and Koepka were both 13 under, and three shots clear of the field, when play was halted.
Thomas missed just one fairway on the front nine while focusing on shortening his backswing. He only hit one on the back nine, though, and failed to make a birdie. He had to scramble just to shoot 1-over 36 on the last nine.
There was a flop shot to save par on the 15th, and then a good bogey save at the 17th, where he bladed a fairway-bunker shot over the green. He missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the last hole after a good wedge shot.
“It would be hard for me to say that (the delay) didn’t kind of stop my momentum because I was playing really flawlessly, I felt like, that front nine,” Thomas said.
He has hit less than half his fairways this week (13 of 28) to rank 25th in the 30-man field in driving accuracy. He insists he’s driving it better than the statistics indicate, but the rough is so penal at East Lake that one foot can make a big difference. He had to lay up on 18 after his tee shot just trickled into the rough.
“That’s the difference between me being able to hit a 4-iron and trying to make a 3 and then I’m just trying to get it over the water,” Thomas said. “That’s a big difference at East Lake.”
Thomas and McIlroy are trying to join Tiger Woods as the only two-time champions in the FedExCup’s 12-year history. McIlroy won the TOUR Championship and FedExCup in 2016. He started the week five off the lead but shot 66-67 in the first two rounds.
McIlroy finished Friday’s round by saving par from a greenside bunker on 16, sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on 17 and hitting a 25-yard chip to 3 feet for a closing birdie.
“When they cleared the course. I was even par, sort of neutral, a nice thing for me to reset, and I thought, ‘OK, let’s give myself a goal here. Let’s play the last nine holes at 3 under par,’ and I was able to do that. It worked nicely for me.”
McIlroy has 13 top-10s this season, including wins at THE PLAYERS and RBC Canadian Open. He leads the TOUR in Strokes Gained: Total, as well. He said before the tournament started that he believes a FedExCup victory could give him a case for the Player of the Year Award.
He’ll have to earn it, though. Three of the game’s top players sit atop the leaderboard as the TOUR Championship heads to the weekend.