Dustin Johnson is there. With the majority of the world’s top-ranked players preparing for next week’s U.S. Open, other names near the top of the leaderboard at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree aren’t nearly so familiar.
They’re all great golfers; no one makes the PGA Tour without a lot of game. They just lack star power — for now.
The most notable absentee on the leaderboard? Brooks Koepka. He gets the dubious honor hands down. The world’s eighth-ranked player unceremoniously missed the cut after playing two rounds at Congaree Golf Club in 3-over-par 145.
He’s earned the title “Mr. Major,” and that’s a big reason for his struggles over the Tom Fazio course carved out of an old rice plantation in rural Jasper County. This is not one of golf’s major championship.
“Reps. That’s what I need,” he said after Friday’s 2-over 73. “I just need tournament reps and trying to hit different shots on your competition. I’ve missed so much of the season just with the knee (injury), where I feel like I’m already a little bit behind.
“Yeah, I like where my game’s at. I’m striking it well, putting it well. So I don’t see anything wrong. It’s just, like I said, maybe a little lack of focus and maybe — these weeks before the majors, I start thinking about next week instead of where I am. It’s not an excuse, but it just needs to be better.”
Ah, the magic word: Focus.
“I mean, I don’t try to miss a cut,” Koepka said. “I don’t know, I just have a harder time focusing in regular PGA Tour events than I do majors. Majors, I know I’m locked in from the moment I hit the first tee shot. Even walking from the first tee shot to the ball, my head is still going on what I need to do. Out here, I kind of lose focus for a little bit.
“I’ve got to figure it out. That’s why I struggle, I think, in regular events. It’s the focus and the energy, the excitement level just isn’t there when it would be in a major. It’s different. I thrive off that bigger stage, that big moment where there’s a bunch of fans and a tough golf course. I love it.”
Indeed, at times Friday, he looked like the player who owns four major championships, the guy who chased Phil Mickelson into history three weeks ago at the PGA, and one of the few golfers with back-to-back U.S. Open victories.
He rolled home a birdie putt from about six feet on the 18th green Friday morning and showed signs of inserting some star power in the tournament. at Congaree.
Then, on No. 2 — he started his second round on the back nine — he birdied the par-5 and knocked another stroke off par on the drivable par-4 third.
Back into the tournament conversation? Alas, no.
In between, a wayward drive and three putts added up to bogey on No. 1, and any hopes to make the cut dwindled with bogeys on Nos. 4 and 6.
Koepka said in pre-event conversations that he likes to play a tournament the week before a major and Friday refused to blame the knee injury that has limited his schedule. Instead, he kept returning to the “focus” idea and “next week.”
“(The knee) is good; it’s in a really good spot,” he said. “I like what it’s at. I’ve done enough rehab and the strength’s coming around. I can almost squat down and read a putt like normal.
“My game’s in good shape. I know my score doesn’t reflect it, but I like where it’s at. I feel even better than where I was going into the PGA. I’m pretty pleased, pretty happy. Just get ready for next week.”
He liked a lot of things about his game at Congaree, ranging from commitment to the shot and ball-striking.
“I’m doing what I want with the ball, flighting it,” he said. “I’m pretty pleased.”
But the numbers on the scorecard did not reflect positive results. He gained more than two shots on the field tee to green, but he lost 2.45 strokes in putting.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Koepka said. “It’s more of like I struggle with focus out here because my mind’s already kind of going to next week and thinking about everything I need to do there. That’s where the poor scoring comes from, lack of focus.”
A problem this week, no doubt. Next week, remember that “Mr. Major” handle. He’s earned it.