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The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Marcus Hayes

Marcus Hayes: Brooks Koepka leads near-tragic, wet Masters ahead of amateur Sam Bennett, sentimental favorite

AUGUSTA, Ga. — After (almost) two rounds, the 87th Masters tournament had a little bit of everything: redemption stories, sentimental stories, villains, heroes, bad weather in the offing, and even a near natural disaster.

Oh, and Tiger, too.

Shortly after 4 p.m., three trees fell near the 17th hole, scattering fans and ending play for the day at 4:22 p.m., the second weather stoppage of the round. No one was injured. Play was to resume at 8 a.m. Saturday and continue all day despite rain in the forecast. Tiger Woods and 38 other players failed to complete Round 2. Tiger was on the 2-over cut line with seven holes to play, seeking to tie Fred Couples and Gary Player, each of whom made a record 23 consecutive cuts here.

But no player except world No. 3 golfer Jon Rahm, 9-under after the front nine, had a realistic chance of catching Brooks Koepka, the LIV Golf stud who entered the day tied for the lead at 7-under and finished it at 12-under. That was four shots clear of the next-best clubhouse score, which belonged to Sam Bennett, the fifth-year Texas A&M amateur playing for the memory of his father.

As ever, Koepka’s golf, while sublime — he shot 5-under on Friday with no bogeys, and had just one bogey in 36 holes — controversy followed him like a shadow.

This time, it was Caddiegate.


Koepka’s bag man, Rickie Elliott, remained under scrutiny Friday for what appeared to be an obvious rules violation in the first round Thursday. There was a good argument that Koepka’s 12-under score should have been 10.

After Koepka hit a 5-iron onto the 15th green, Elliott mouthed the word “five” twice as Gary Woodland’s caddie, Brennan “Butchie” Little, walked past and looked directly at him. A moment later, as Koepka removed his glove, he appeared to flash all five fingers at Woodland and Little.

Giving advice to a competitor is a two-stroke penalty.

The tournament’s competition committee Thursday reviewed the tape as it interviewed the group about Elliott mouthing the word “five,” but determined there was no wrongdoing. Koepka on Thursday insisted Woodland remained ignorant of Koepka’s club selection after they both birdied the hole and walked off the 15th green.

The incident sparked a compelling sparring match by Golf Channel analysts Paul McGinley and Brandel Chamblee, both retired professionals, on Thursday night. McGinley, a former Ryder Cup captain for Europe, said players and caddies routinely ignore the rule and exchange information. Chamblee said he’d never done that, refuted McGinley’s claim that the practice is commonplace, and called on Koepka to self-assess the penalty to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Koepka did just the opposite. He doubled down.

He claimed Elliott was telling a TV spotter which club Koepka hit, a common occurrence at televised tournaments. Woodland and his caddie just happened to be be in the way. Coincidentally.

“He was signaling to somebody what it was. It wasn’t Butchie,” Koepka said ... then strayed from his story line from Thursday: “Because they asked us what we hit walking down the fairway.”

Thursday’s version had Woodland asking Koepka which club he’d hit as he departed the green, not as they walked down the fairway.

After Friday’s round, Koepka again was asked to review the tape, this time to determine if he’d intentionally flashed the number five to Woodland or his caddie.

“I’m taking my glove off,” he explained. “The last thing I’m going to do is give [advice] to Gary Woodland, the [2019] U.S. Open champ.”

Rolling with the punches

Koepka, 32, was in a much better frame of mind after Round 2 this year than last. He said he was still recovering from injuries when he missed the 4-over cut line by two shots, and he took it out on his ride in the parking lot off Magnolia Lane.

“I tried to break the back window with my fist of the car. I tried to put it through the back window, not once but twice. First time didn’t go, so figured try it again,” Koepka said. “I guess Mercedes makes a pretty good back window.”

Koepka atop the leaderboard was a coup for LIV, the renegade tour that paid Koepka and other stars like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Cameron Smith hundreds of millions of dollars to forfeit their PGA Tour futures and join the controversial Saudi-run circuit. Those three were among the eight LIV players who were either assured to make the cut or at least had a chance. LIV had 18 players qualify, none more promising than Koepka.

Koepka battled injuries for two years. LIV signed him in June, in the midst of those battles, when he was unsure if he’d ever be competitive again. Had he been healthy and competitive on the PGA Tour, would he have had a tougher decision regarding LIV?

“Yeah, probably, if I’m being completely honest. I think it would have been,” he said. “But I’m happy with the decision I made.”

So is Bennett.

Tear jerker

Bennett qualified by winning the U.S. Amateur in August, because he was still an amateur. Barely.

Last year, Bennett could have turned pro and joined the Korn Ferry Tour. Instead, in April he announced his plans to return to College Station, and, 357 days later, he’d shot back-to-back 68s and stood at 8-under par, and, like a thoroughbred, he’s got the scent of the finish line in his nostrils.

“I know that my good golf is good enough,” he said.

His story is even better.

A native of tiny Madisonville, Texas, Bennett stayed near home for college to be closer to his father, Mark, who was battling Alzheimer’s. On June 12, 2020, Mark told Sam, “Don’t wait to do something.” Sam, rattled, asked his mother, Stacy, to help his father to write those words on a napkin. She did. The disease had compromised Mark’s motor skills, so Mark scrawled it, but signed it “Pops,” and dated it. Sam kept the note.

After his father died in 2021, Sam had the words tattooed on his left forearm.

His mother, Stacy, and nearly 20 supporters stood outside the Augusta National clubhouse after Sam’s second 4-under score, delighted that Bennett was so close to winning but not a bit surprised.

Said Stacy: “I think it’s destiny.”

Only at Augusta.

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