McIlroy, Koepka Shake Hands And Smile, Then Turn To Chasing Down Leaders At US Open

LOS ANGELES (AP) — They shared a bro handshake and a laugh or two on the first tee box. Then, the odd couple — Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka — started down the fairway in search of solutions for the biggest problem in golf.

On Thursday at the U.S. Open, it had nothing to do with Saudi-backed LIV Golf (Koepka’s tour) or the future of the PGA Tour (McIlroy’s). Rather, it was the eight-shot deficit they shared before they’d even put a tee in the ground.

McIlroy made some inroads. Koepka didn’t.

McIlroy shot 5-under 65 to pull within three of Xander Schauffele and Rickie Fowler, who, hours earlier, had finished up record-setting 62s at Los Angeles Country Club. McIlroy’s only bogey came on 18 — really it was a terrific save after not moving the ball an inch on his third shot from deep greenside rough.

Koepka spent most of the day in search of fairways during a 1-over 71 round that would be just fine on most opening days, but not this one.

The USGA’s pairing of Koepka and McIlroy — with Hideki Matsuyama added to the mix to presumably play peacemaker — caught the golf world’s eye.

How McIlroy felt about it was anyone’s guess. He canceled his pre-tournament news conference and didn’t stop for interviews after Round 1, which he finished in a tie for fifth. He and Koepka will play together again Friday afternoon.

The 34-year-old four-time major champion was the most outspoken defender of the PGA Tour when players started defecting for LIV Golf about a year ago. When the tour and the Saudi backers of LIV announced last week that they were ending hostilities and going into business together, McIlroy said he felt like “a sacrificial lamb” — a front man who espoused all that was good about the tour but wasn’t even given a heads-up before the deal was announced.

“Removing myself from the situation, I see how this is better for the game of golf. There’s no denying that,” he said last week. “But for me as an individual, yeah, there’s just going to have to be conversations that are had.”

Koepka was never as outspoken about his move to LIV, but when he won the PGA Championship last month, he blew holes in the theory that all the LIV guys went for the easy money because they didn’t have game anymore.

Koepka didn’t have his ‘A” game Thursday, though another LIV player, Dustin Johnson, made the point this time. He shot 6 under.

If there was any animosity between McIlroy and Koepka, two of the world’s best and most high-profile players, it didn’t show. They were joking as they stood between the putting green and the first tee box, and just before their names were announced, they clasped hands like good buddies. They bantered as they walked down the first fairway.

In the lead-in to the U.S. Open this week, Koepka said “I enjoy the chaos” that was consuming golf. He has collected all five of his majors since McIlroy won his most recent in 2014, and Koepka considers his ability to block the outside noise as a major advantage.

After sharing his thoughts at the Canadian Open last week, shortly after the news broke, McIlroy hasn’t said anything in public.

After Day 1 of the U.S. Open, he was letting his game do the talking, while Koepka left the course looking for answers.