Koepka leads LIV charge with 65 to join Hovland and Rahm at the top

John Shortt
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Jon Rahm at the Genesis Invitational (Photo by David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

In what will surely send Team Europe captain Luke Donald to bed with a smile on his face, Viktor Hovland and Jon Rahm share the early lead with Brooks Koepka at the Masters after they put Augusta National to the sword on Thursday

Anticipated to be the best day for scoring, the European duo went to work at Washington Road on Thursday morning with blistering 65s before LIV Orlando winner Koepka joined them after he birdied three of his last four holes.

Hovland, reunited with Tiger Woods having shared the stage with him in 2019 following his low amateur win, was flawless  in his 65 and he rode momentum early with an eagle on the par-5 2nd.

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The Norwegian closed out his front nine with three birdies in four holes before birdies on 11 and 13 saw him cruise through Amen Corner and make it five birdies in seven holes and seven in thirteen.

Hovland was pleased with his days work knowing he had to take advantage of the favourable conditions.

“We don’t know how bad it’s going to get, but I tend to think that it’s easier to make up some ground on the easier days. So if you start with a really low round and it gets very difficult, it’s kind of easier to protect the score a little bit compared to if you’re five, six, seven shots back, it’s really difficult to make up that much ground if this place is playing very difficult. So obviously getting off to a nice start is key this week.”

Hovland usually maligned for his chipping, dubbed a hinderance to his Masters chances, put on a magical display of scrambling.

Stunning chips on 10 and 14 saw him save par and he got up and down on 17 and 18 to preserve his blemish free round.

“I mean, don’t need to get fully nerdy about it, but basically the biggest part is that I’m not tilting back as much, and the biggest problem was that I’ve gotten too shallow with my chips, and that’s just kind of have to yank the hands forward and you get no loft.

“The first part was getting more on top of the ball, get some more angle of attack down, and now I can actually percent the loft in the way that I want. If I want to hit it high, if I want to hit it low, I can do that with my wrist now.

“I don’t care how good you hit it out here, you have to chip the ball. You have to have a short game. And especially on that back nine when I hit a lot of bad shots, to be honest, but I managed to keep myself in it by hitting some really nice chips and making some really nice putts.”

Rahm played his last seventeen holes in a remarkable nine-under-par having bounced back from an equally eye raising four-putt double bogey on the first hole.

“If you’re going to make a double or four-putt or anything, it might as well be the first hole, 71 holes to make it up,” said the world number two. “After that, it was more, I was focused on the fact that all the strokes were good. The reads were good. The roll was good. Obviously the speed was off on the first two putts, so once I kind of accepted that there was nothing really to look into, I just got to work and I had 17 holes to make up.

“I’ve always said and I’ve always told Adam and I tell people who ask me about the Masters, if you can somehow make it through the first 6 1/2 holes, and what I mean is putting the ball in the fairway on 7 and you’re around even par, I think it’s a pretty good start. It’s easy to make bogeys. It’s not easy to make birdies. So if you can get through that, you have a short iron into 7, 8, 9 to maybe make some birdies and maybe get the round going. I was able to do that and took advantage of it the rest of the day.”

The Spaniard was flawless from there, eliminating the mistake with back-to-back birdies on 2 and 3 before a birdie on seven and a stunning eagle on the par-5 8th put him firmly in the early mix.

Rahm has been struggling with the lefts off the tee this year, even during his dominant winning run. He hit every fairway during his opening round and he took full advantage with four birdies in six holes to close out his round as he looks to become the fourth Spanish winner at Augusta.

“Finally it’s the first time this year that it’s felt like it should in the past, my swing off the tee, definitely. Those two 3-woods on the first hole and one on 10, both well-hit. Every other tee shot, it’s something I mentioned after the round to Adam, as well, is about as good as I could think so, line-wise especially, a little bit more on line, every trajectory was the way I thought of.

“Being the strength of my game, I wouldn’t say there was any key. I just committed to my lines and to my swing and was able to pull it off.”

Koepka made it a three-way tie for the lead late on Thursday but he escaped a potential penalty on fifteen when it was questioned that one caddie asked another caddie what a player was hitting.

“Yeah, we looked at it when we got back in. GW and Butchie had no idea what we were hitting; they didn’t even know because — I know that fact because GW asked me what we hit walking off, when we were walking down. So that’s all I can give you,” said Koepka.

The four-time major winner eased to five-under through 12 holes which is probably the worst score he could have been considering the chances he passed up.

Koepka found the left bushes on 13 and had to settle for a bogey six before he roared to the clubhouse with a birdie on the dubious 15th, 17th and 18th and he hopes to sneak out on Friday morning and beat the weather.

“I don’t think my score really gives me much of an advantage. I think maybe my tee time with the weather coming up, I think I might be able to squeak out a few more holes than everybody else before it starts dumping. I would say that’s probably the biggest advantage I’ve got going for me right now.”

 

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