FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Former Twin Michael Cuddyer was a big-league third baseman who hailed from Chesapeake, Va. He finished his career with the Mets, playing with David Wright, another now-retired third baseman from Chesapeake.
Wright is the honorary ambassador of the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. Wright’s role and Cuddyer’s friendship with him allowed Cuddyer to witness history from inside the ropes Thursday.
Brooks Koepka shot a course-record 63 in the first round, and Cuddyer and Wright walked alongside.
Leaderboard: Final round of PGA Championship
“I went to the PGA at Oak Hill in 2003 when I was in Rochester on a rehab assignment,” Cuddyer said. “With David, the access here is a little better. We were on 17 with Tiger’s group hearing the crowd cheer and I was pinching myself. Brooks came over to talk to us [Wednesday]. He’s an impressive guy.”
Koepka honored the ballplayers by chasing a double. If he wins the PGA for a second consecutive year, he will become the first player ever to hold back-to-back titles from two majors concurrently. He’s also won the past two U.S. Opens.
Cuddyer might want to apply to be the honorary ambassador for the 3M Open in Blaine in July. Koepka has committed to play in the tournament, and judging by the way he played Thursday, it wouldn’t be shocking if he showed up at the 3M having won the PGA and another U.S. Open.
Danny Lee is in second place after shooting a 64 on the par-70 course. No other player shot better than 67, and Lee’s round felt like stealing. He hit only 10 greens in regulation and required only 21 putts, his lowest total ever at a PGA Tour event.
Tiger Woods, one of Koepka’s playing partners, said the leader struck the ball so well, a 63 was the worst he could have done. Koepka failed to birdie either par-5 and missed a couple of short putts. He is the first player ever to record two career 63s at the PGA Championship; in fact, no other player has ever done it in a career in any other major.
Earlier this week, Koepka dismissed the chances of all but about 40 of his competitors. Thursday, he might have cut his realistic competition down to a handful.
Are his competitors intimidated by him? “I don’t know,” he said with a smile. “You’re going to have to ask them.”
“Tiger’s group” might need a new name. Woods and Francesco Molinari, the defending Masters and British Open champions, each finished at 2 over while playing alongside Koepka. If they had placed side bets, Koepka would own Woods’ yacht.
The New York crowd expressed heavily accented support for Woods. Koepka noticed but didn’t care. He birdied the tough 10th hole to start his day, quickly took the lead and didn’t sound like he’s worried about relinquishing it.
Koepka has won more majors (three) than other PGA Tour titles (two).
“I’ve never been this confident,” he said. “I think I’m still learning, understanding my game, and I’ve figured it out, and I think over the next few years, I’m excited for what’s to come. I understand a lot more about my misses, where to hit it, and major championships I just suck it up, and you don’t always have to aim at the flag like you do in regular events. Sometimes it’s just about how few bogeys and doubles you make this week.”
Lee has never finished in the top 10 of a major, largely because he was Koepka’s opposite until recently.
“At first, I wasn’t hitting it far enough to compete out here in major championships,” he said. “Now I’m definitely hitting it further. I can carry my driver 290, 295 yards in the air. That’s a huge bonus for me. And that was actually the first time I got to play in a major with this distance.”
Predictions are useless in golf. With one bad swing or decision, Koepka could welcome the field back into the competition.
But he doesn’t play or sound like someone who will wilt. He has won three of the past seven majors in which he has played. By the time he reaches Blaine, Koepka could be golfing royalty.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org