2021 U.S. Open scores: Two-time champion Brooks Koepka ensures peers know the major still runs through him

LA JOLLA, Calif. — In his last three U.S. Opens, Brooks Koepka has lost to one golfer. That number might not change this week at Torrey Pines for the 121st edition of a tournament Koepka has won twice. He shot a 2-under 69 in Round 1 and splashed his name all over the top of the leaderboard from the beginning of his 18-hole trek on Thursday.

This should not be surprising. Koepka owns the U.S. Open. He did not play last September when archrival (is that what we’re calling him?) Bryson DeChambeau took down the title at Winged Foot. Before that, he won two of three and lost the other one to Gary Woodland by three strokes. More broadly, he has won four of his last 20 major championships and finished in the top 10 in 13 of them. It would be more surprising if he finished outside the top 10 than inside of it this week at Torrey Pines.

Koepka was terrific from his opening tee shot, which was delayed by 90 minutes due to fog off the Pacific Ocean. He went out in 33 and came home in 36 for the 69. It’s not a number that suggests the tournament is over, but given his history at this tournament and at majors in general, it has to feel like a problem for the other 155 golfers in this field to see Koepka’s name anywhere near the lead.

When he won in 2017 at Erin Hills, Koepka opened with 67 and trailed by two strokes to Rickie Fowler. When he won in 2018, he opened with a 75 (!) and was down six strokes to a quartet of players. In 2019, he shot 69 and trailed by four. He’s not an early frontrunner, but he is an early lurker — at least at this championship — and he’ll be lurking (but not leading) when he tees it back up on Friday afternoon.

Two shots stood out on Thursday. Both will get lost throughout the week, but they were important as he steered home that 69.

The first was a bogey save after a “gasp out loud” hooked shot into the par-3 3rd hole where he had to take relief from a penalty area. He got up and down from there for a ridiculous bogey. The other came on the par-3 8th hole where he had to choke down on his wedge to chip out from an awkward spot near a bunker. He got up and down from there for a par. Two strokes it would have been so easy to drop that he did not drop. That’s what gives him wiggle room on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.

The majority of Koepka’s damage was done from tee to green on Thursday. His putting was field average, but he hit 13 of 18 greens in regulation, which is often vital to scoring at a U.S. Open (anywhere, really) and picked up over three strokes on the field on approach shots.

It’s easy to forget how he dominates this specific tournament for myriad reasons. Koepka often contains a world of noise. The noise of his bad knee, the noise of him not playing well at (and not caring about) regular PGA Tour events and (mostly) the noise of his brouhaha with DeChambeau.

But this is his tournament, or it has been for the last several years. 

There is a possibility we get a Koepka-DeChambeau showdown this weekend at Torrey Pines, which would be fabulous. There is also a possibility that Koepka falls off a cliff on Friday or Saturday. There is a possibility that somebody like Dustin Johnson runs away with the golf tournament.

Everything is still up in the air at this point, but after a one-year absence from the U.S. Open because of injury, Koepka made one thing very clear over his first 18 holes.

Despite him not leading and maybe not shooting what he probably thought he could have on Thursday, there is no doubt that the same thing that’s been true for the last his last three U.S. Open outings is once again true this year at Torrey Pines. The national championship doesn’t run through the defending champ, DeChambeau. It runs through Brooks Koepka. Nothing about Thursday’s 2-under 69 has changed that. In fact, it only made that reality more true.