By Jim SLATER
Four-time major winner and LIV Golf rebel Brooks Koepka seized command of the Masters with a sizzling five-under par 67 before a storm that uprooted trees halted Friday’s second round at Augusta National.
Koepka torched the par-5 holes for an eagle and three birdies in a bogey-free tour. His superb shotmaking followed an opening 65, his lowest Masters round, and left him on 12-under 132 for 36 holes, three strokes in front.
“It was really solid. Didn’t really do too much wrong,” Koepka said. “You’ve got to make birdies on these par 5s, take advantage of them, and did a good job of that.”
After winning last week’s LIV Golf event in Orlando, Koepka could produce the PGA Tour’s nightmare scenario of a victory on one of golf’s greatest stages by a player from the breakaway circuit.
Third-ranked Jon Rahm, the 2021 US Open winner, was second on 9-under after making a seven-foot birdie putt at the par-5 eighth and a 12-footer for birdie at the ninth.
The Spaniard, however, was among 39 players unable to complete the second round as play was stopped until Saturday after three trees were toppled by gusty winds near the 17th tee.
Augusta National said there were no injuries but spectators were evacuated and players were removed from the course.
“The safety and well-being of everyone attending the Masters tournament will always be the top priority of the club,” a statement from Augusta National said. “We will continue to closely monitor weather today and through the tournament.”
Koepka, the 2017 and 2018 US Open champion and 2018 and 2019 PGA Championship winner, finished well before the storms.
“The biggest advantage I had was my tee time,” Koepka said.
US Amateur champion Sam Bennett fired a 68 to stand third on 136. The 23-year-old Texan, could be the first amateur in a Masters last pairing in 65 years and was confident he can defeat Koepka.
“I know that my good golf is good enough,” Bennett said.
Two-time major winner Collin Morikawa was fourth on 6-under 138 after a second 69 and Norway’s ninth-rated Viktor Hovland also was at 6-under through 10 holes.
Australia’s Jason Day and Americans Sam Burns and Spieth, a three-time major winner, were on 139.
“The benefit we have, those of us chasing, is that it’s going to be incredibly difficult conditions,” Spieth said. “It means a few under goes a long way.”
Koepka birdied the par-5 second to grab the solo lead, then curled in a tricky 10-foot par putt at the third.
The 32-year-old American eagled the par-5 eighth after a brilliant approach, making him the fastest Masters player to 10-under since Jordan Spieth on his way to a 2015 victory.
Koepka cleared Rae’s Creek in two at the extended par-5 13th on the way to a tap-in birdie and notched another at 15.
“It was a clinic for 36 holes,” said Koepka’s playing partner Gary Woodland. “It was impressive to see.”
Koepka is among 18 qualifiers from the Saudi-backed LIV Golf League at Augusta National, where talk of the PGA-LIV split has been set aside by players so they can focus on winning the green jacket.
“I don’t know if this is the place for healing those wounds,” two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal said.
The PGA Tour banned players who jumped to the upstart series for record $25 million purses and 54-hole events and a court fight is set for early 2024, but LIV players can compete in majors.
– Tiger on cut line –
World number two Rory McIlroy, who needs a Masters victory to complete a career Grand Slam, fired a 77 to stand on 149, three strokes over the projected cut line.
Top-ranked defending champion Scottie Scheffler struggled to a 75 to stand on 143, 11 off the lead.
Tiger Woods, a 15-time major winner and five-time Masters champion, was level par through 11 holes and on the projected 2-over cutline overall.
Woods, 47, has missed the cut only once in 24 prior Masters starts, as an amateur in 1996, a year before his record-shattering first major triumph at Augusta. — Agence France-Presse