Koepka the man to beat at the U.S. Open

ERIN, Wis. — Believe it or not, Brooks Koepka would prefer to be somewhere else than at the top of a U.S. Open leaderboard. In fact, he would rather be on a Game 7 mound in the World Series or in a Game 7 backcourt next to Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals.

He plays golf for a living, but don’t you dare call him a golfer. He is an athlete. And since many people don’t consider golfers true athletes, he pulls up his tight and short sleeves to show off his jacked arms and moves from tee to green like a panther stalking its prey.

Koepka has taken the place of his good friend Dustin Johnson as the picture of muscle and athleticism favored to win this tournament. The defending champ missed the cut, and so Koepka slid right into his lead role, minus four inches in height. Koepka joined Paul Casey, Brian Harman and Tommy Fleetwood in a 36-hole tie for first place at 7 under. If you’re looking to put down a few nickels on one of them, you’d be wise to consider Koepka the safest bet.

“He’s the most underrated American player in the world,” said Graeme McDowell, the Irishman and former U.S. Open champ who grew up with Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott. McDowell has played a ton with Koepka, and he believes the 27-year-old Floridian will soon stand among the five best players in the world.

By any red-white-and-blue standard, Koepka developed his skills in a most unusual way. He played all over Europe, all over the world, on his way to the PGA Tour. He played on the Challenge Tour overseas, then on the European Tour. He played in Kazakhstan. He played in any country and on any continent he could find a game.

“I think that’s why he’s under the radar over here,” McDowell said. “Most American players don’t do what he did. They prefer the lush courses at home — and the cars and the jets. Going overseas made Brooks a better player.”

A tougher player too. He learned to navigate a maze of different languages and cultures from week to week, all the inconveniences of life far, far away from home. He was the polar opposite of the ugly-American stereotype, and he returned home a lot less likely to sweat a bad bounce into the Erin Hills fescue because of it.

Soon after he shot a 2-under 70 on Friday that included a couple of bogeys on a couple of bad swings across his second nine, costing him sole possession of first place, Koepka was told he projected a vibe of calmness throughout the day.

“Yeah, I’d say so,” he said. “I mean, it doesn’t really get me too worked up. Whatever happens — bogey, double, birdie, eagle — I’m pretty chill anyway. I’m enjoying it right now.”

For good reason. Erin Hills is a monstrously long course, and Koepka said he worried about unleashing his driver only on two or three holes.

“Other than that,” he said, “it’s bombs away.”

Koepka plays fast and fearlessly, and with an uncluttered mind. He really is a Johnson clone (they’re both students of Butch and Claude Harmon), just with a different body type. If DJ is best pictured as a wide receiver or a hybrid tight end, Koepka comes across more as a fullback or linebacker.

Koepka played his college golf at Florida State, and it isn’t hard to imagine Bobby Bowden — in one of his final acts while coaching the Seminoles — trying to persuade Koepka to give up his noncontact sport for something a bit more, you know, manly. Brooks didn’t switch to football, and he didn’t return to baseball, one of his first boyhood loves. Koepka’s father, Bob, was a pitcher at West Virginia Wesleyan, and his great-uncle, Dick Groat, was an All-American basketball player at Duke and the 1960 National League MVP as the shortstop of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But golf would be Brooks’ game for keeps. Truth is, Tiger Woods made the sport cool enough for the Brooks Koepkas and Dustin Johnsons and Tony Finaus — kids who had options in other fields and arenas. Tiger allowed the real athletes to put away their footballs, basketballs and baseballs and work on their short games all day and night.

Koepka doesn’t look like the golfers your father and grandfather grew up watching. He doesn’t want to be labeled a golf nerd, and he sure doesn’t act like one. At last year’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol, Koepka played on an ankle swollen enough for Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi to have advised him to take the week off.

He finished tied for fourth instead.

Now he’s tied for first at the halfway point of the U.S. Open, with a winning Ryder Cup experience (a 3-1 record) and five top-15s in his past six majors behind him. Koepka didn’t do much scoreboard watching on Friday, even though he spent part of the day all alone in first place.

“I don’t really care,” he said. “It’s not Sunday afternoon. It doesn’t really matter. You’re not going to win it today.”

But Koepka has the talent, toughness, attitude and muscle to emerge from a pack of nonmajor winners at the top of the board to dominate the weekend. That doesn’t mean he’ll win this U.S. Open. It only means he’s the man to beat over the next 36 holes.

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