Few golfers relish a U.S. Open quite like Brooks Koepka. One at the Olympic Club was his first major tournament appearance. An iteration at Pinehurst saw his debut top-five finish in a major. He first lifted a major trophy at Erin Hills in 2017, and then he did it again the next year at Shinnecock Hills.
But Koepka has this week become a paradoxical, brand-name exhibit in an unexpected debate: Is this U.S. Open, the first at the venerable and cloistered Los Angeles Country Club, too easy? It was only on Tuesday that Koepka had been talking about how the tournament’s historical ferocity was a perverse source of comfort.
“I just love when, I guess, maybe somewhere closer to even par wins,” said Koepka, who captured his first Open victory with a score of 16 under at Erin Hills — and his second by shooting one over at a Shinnecock Hills course where the rhetoric about the setup was about as fiery as the greens.
“If it’s going to be a birdiefest where 20-, 21-under wins,” Koepka added, “that’s really not the style.”
But so far, the par-70 Los Angeles course has offered up an awfully forgiving Open, at least by the standards of a major that takes pleasure in being known as golf’s most treacherous.
The first round on Thursday included two players, Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele, racing into the record books with 62s that were the lowest single-round scores in Open history. The field as a whole posted a first-round scoring average of 71.38, the lowest mark in Open history.
Friday sometimes seemed to have as many safe harbors as punishments, even as green speeds picked up and the course played a little firmer. Dustin Johnson, who had a quadruple bogey on the second hole on Friday, proceeded to card five birdies and enter the weekend at six under. Harris English began his Friday at three under and wound up at seven under. Wyndham Clark, who has never made a U.S. Open cut, held the lead for a time, having fired a 64 on Thursday and a 67 on Friday.
The dynamic has left wait-them-out players like Koepka, who was at even par after the second round, in a peculiar spot: still in the field but not much in the mix (yet), wondering whether a war of attrition will, or can, emerge fast enough on a course where the first tee looks toward the Beverly Hilton and California’s “June Gloom” is often looming.
“I won majors on golf courses that I haven’t really liked too much,” Koepka, who tied for second at the Masters in April and won last month’s P.G.A. Championship by two strokes, said on Friday. “But, yeah, this one, I don’t know, it’s just — it’s not my favorite.”
The weather forecast for the weekend suggests that the course could become a little more perilous — “Hopefully,” said Cameron Smith, “this place gets really baked out and we can have some fun out there” — and the U.S. Golf Association could impose diabolical pin placements to help achieve what nature cannot. On Friday, the tees were back, and Charley Hoffman, who is playing his ninth Open, cautioned that organizers “haven’t tricked anything up yet” with pin locations.
“If you’re in position, you can attack,” said Hoffman, who shot a 67 on Friday to bring his tournament score to two under. “If you’re not, you are sort of trying to make par.”
Still, course commentary has often seemed like a study in gentility, just about a month after players raved over the revamped Oak Hill Country Club, which hosted the P.G.A. Championship that concluded with 11 players under par. Around the time Koepka walked off the course on Friday afternoon, with the last tee times still to come for the 156-man field, 35 players were under par for the week, including Rory McIlroy, who picked up three strokes on Friday to stand at eight under heading into the third round.
Only a handful of headliners were in jeopardy of missing the cut as the U.S.G.A., which spent the previous months mulling how to set up one of the widest Open courses in memory, looked toward the weekend.
In some ways, the association is learning as it goes, with Los Angeles the third course to make its Open debut in the past decade. The other two offered wildly different winning scores. Erin Hills, a par-72 course, saw Koepka win with a 272. At Chambers Bay, a par-70 setting, Jordan Spieth’s five-under showing was enough.
“Obviously now they can see, hey, we can put a little bit more into it, so, yeah, I would be expecting a little tougher over the weekend,” Padraig Harrington, a three-time major winner, said of the tournament organizers. He noted that players see the ideal tournament as playing to 14 under and that the U.S.G.A. could grow flustered at the notion of a winning score belonging to a golfer in double-digits below par on Sunday evening.
Harrington, after all, had been quoted in the Irish press this week as signaling a willingness to surrender “body parts” to be at four under after the final round. It was a number, he mused after his Friday round that put him at two over, that was now apparent would not be enough to win this tournament, given the conditions and the scoring.
“They’re not giving up body parts for that anymore,” he said.
McIlroy, who played in Koepka’s group on Thursday and Friday, confessed that he, too, had not anticipated seeing so many low numbers.
“The course has played maybe a little easier than everyone thought it would, but wouldn’t be surprised on Saturday/Sunday to see it bite back,” he said, adding: “It should be tough. It should be just as much of a mental grind out there as a physical one.”
Koepka, the sensation of this spring in golf, could not hope for much more. But he was skeptical on Friday that the course could be made sufficiently fearsome in a hurry, perhaps opening the way for him to rise on the leaderboard.
In the meantime, he suggested, Los Angeles seemed like a better place for an ordinary round, not one of the ones that really count.