It is 6.30am when Brooks Koepka arrives at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, flashing a high-watt smile to the club staff before strutting his way to the practice green. If he wasn’t world number one or a professional golfer, he could be anything with his comic book character looks and strong set of shoulders on him like the Burj Khalifa.
The 29-year-old is gearing up for his first competitive round in 89 days, since undergoing knee surgery following a fall in South Korea in October. On the range, he hits some irons, uses his new driver and measures a few putts. All his normal preparation before his early tee time at 07.40am.
Along the four-minute walk from the driving range to the 10th tee, the four-time major winner chats to his caddie Ricky Elliott. He’s sporting black trousers and a black jacket. White shoes and a white hat.
On the 10th, the morning sun is barely creeping through the trees. It is early and only a few bodies have braved the morning elements. It is cold and some people are wearing jackets. His day started well too, sinking a birdie on the first hole.
A missed putt for birdie on the 14th leaves him dropping his head for a brief moment before rising straight back up. It is disgust more than anything knowing he should have converted the putt. But a par will suffice.
He speaks with Tommy Fleetwood for a minute between the 14th and 15th holes, one of his two partners for the first round alongside defending champion Shane Lowry. Despite rarely raising a smile, he always stays cool and calm.
Just as he sizes up his tee shot on the 15h, his sixth hole of the day, the black jacket finally comes off. In his black Nike polo, he looks a beast of a man. Not many would want to mess with bustling Brooks.
When he’s waiting at the tee box, he always leans on his club, switching between right and left sides. Here, everyone wants a glimpse of him up close. What sets him apart from the others? What is he doing that makes him the messiah of world golf?
As he zips an iron down the 15th – a 177-yard, par 3 – he converts a healthy one for birdie. Saluting the crowd with that traditional half wave from his right hand. Behind the ropes, two American voices can be heard cheering on their man, ‘come on Brooks’.
The Florida native always surveys the green three times before unleashing his tee shot. Always trying to make it to the tee box first after a hole as if it’s a competition.
His first major challenge came on the 16th. Landing a blistering effort ten yards from a gangly tree, a tough second shot lay ahead. After much consulting with Elliott, he lobs it out effortlessly, then pitches his third shot to within three feet for par. Some recovery.
Then came the shot of the day, chipping in from an unpleasant lie on the 17th for birdie. A shot that drew the biggest cheer of the day. For Brooks? He doesn’t even smile, just thanks the crowd and moves on to the next hole.
He continues to bomb it with the new driver and constantly gives himself decent looks for birdie before committing a few mistakes. On the 18th – his ninth hole – he dissected an audacious effort down the fairway.
Claude Harmon, son of Butch, and Brooks’ coach, swapped a joke as he was walking to survey his shot second.
“At least you got the fairway,” Claude said sarcastically, to which Koepka responded, “it only took three years.”
The 18th is one of the best finishing holes on the European Tour, an opportunistic par-5, and a birdie from Koepka here saw him grab a share of the lead early on.
People come running now. Brooks is charging. He might have been out of competitive action for over three months but he is confident and his game is sharp.
He birdies two of the next three holes to lie on six-under par. The traditional wave coming each time and just rocking on to the next hole again. Never getting too excited and just getting on with the task at hand.
After striking a well-measured shot into the wind on the par-3 seventh, he appears to have loosened up more, laughing and joking with Lowry and his caddie Bo Martin. It was here that the white hat came off for the first time.
Any challenge that presents itself Koepka seems to find a way to resolve the problem. His drive on the par-5 eighth drew left with the wind and into the sand. He recovered it well for par to stay on six-under. It was a magical finish.
For all the mental toughness that is needed in golf, Koepka possesses it in droves. He never looks impatient if something goes wrong or not to his required high-standards. Anyone else in this position would have potentially dropped a shot or two.
Another par on the final hole saw him sign off for his best score in Abu Dhabi – a stunning 66 to sit two-strokes behind joint-leaders Renato Paratore and Shaun Norris at the end of the first round.
The same pairing of Koepka, Lowry and Fleetwood will be out in force again on Friday, three brilliant players all showing their vast talents to a vocal Abu Dhabi crowd.
With the American looking back to his best so quickly, it’s exciting to see what heights he can scale in such a pivotal year for golf with the majors, Olympics and Ryder Cup tournaments to come. All of which he will be a key figure in.
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