Brooks Koepka recaptures dominant form, leads WGC by 2

Brooks Koepka shook off his ongoing knee issue to regain his world class form for at least a day.

The defending champion made nine birdies in carding an 8-under-par 62 on Thursday to build a two-shot lead after the first round of the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis, Tenn.

Koepka tied the 18-hole tournament scoring record and nearly set a new one, but had a lengthy birdie putt on the 17th hole lip out. As it was, the 62 at TPC Southwind matched his career low round on Tour.

“The confidence has always been there, it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it,” Koepka said. “Last week I saw signs of progress, and I’ve put the work in so it’s going to come around.

“I feel like I was back to normal on Tuesday and Wednesday, so it’s nice to see a good result.”

Rickie Fowler and Brendon Todd are tied for second place at 6-under, with South Korea’s Sung Kang was another shot off the pace.

A group at 4-under includes FedEx Cup leader Justin Thomas, Matt Kuchar, Max Homa and Chez Reavie.

Koepka’s round came a day after the former No. 1-ranked player in the world and four-time major champion acknowledged he may need another stem cell procedure on his left knee after the season. He also used the time after missing last week’s cut to put in eight-hour days working with his team.

“We put in a lot of work and we found something,” said Koepka, who is ranked sixth in the world. “We had to make a little adjustment in the setup, and where my weight distribution was going. I feel way more in control.

“We watched countless hours of videos of when I played well, and everything seemed to click.”

He entered the week ranked 155th in the FedEx Cup standings and coming off a pair of missed cuts and a T62 in his past three starts. Koepka will also be the defending champion at next week’s PGA Championship at Harding Park in San Francisco.

Fowler’s round was equally as surprising.

He has slipped to 32nd in the world while continuing to work on changes with new swing coach John Tillery. Fowler has missed three of his past four cuts and doesn’t have a top-10 since The American Express in January.

“Feel like we got a lot of good work in and just trying to not worry too much about the swing and kind of go back to thinking about some fundamentals,” said Fowler, who has 12 top-10s in 29 previous starts in WGC events. “Just allowed myself to go play and make golf shots.

Fowler’s 64 was his best career round at TPC Southwind and marked his lowest first-round score of the season.

“Today was an accumulation of the work last week and just freeing myself up and simplifying thoughts and just playing golf versus working on the range,” he said.

Bryson DeChambeau carded a 3-under 67 that included a double bogey on the par-4 seventh hole, his 16th of the day. He was denied relief by a rules official after his wayward tee shot came to rest near an ant hill.

“There was just discussion there and he didn’t think it was necessary for a drop,” said DeChambeau, who came under fire for criticizing a rules official at the Memorial. “I’m always going to respect the officials and go, ‘OK, no issue, that’s fine.’

“Didn’t help that I had a really, really bad lie, too, but one of those – I had two twigs lodged in between my ball. Is what it is.”

Jon Rahm made his first start as the world’s No. 1-ranked player and birdied his final hole to finish at even par. His uneven round included four birdies and four bogies.

“I certainly didn’t play like World No. 1 today so hopefully I can live up to it the next few rounds,” Rahm said. “I just didn’t have a swing today. I felt terrible, I could not figure out where the ball was going to go and I was just trying to minimize mistakes.

“I did make some decent putts out there just to keep the round going. I would say am even-par round is what I deserve.”

Second-ranked Rory McIlroy was tied for the highest score in the field before recording birdies in two of his final three holes to finish at 3-over.

NOTES: Tiger Woods held the No. 1 ranking for 281 weeks. In the 281 weeks since, there have been 27 changes among eight different players, according to golf reporter Doug Ferguson. … Thomas played his first round with Phil Mickelson’s former caddie Jim “Bones” McKay filling in for Jimmie Johnson, who is ill this week. … “The WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational was originally the week scheduled for the men’s Olympic golf event in Japan. … The 78-player, no-cut field features the top eight players in the official world golf rankings and 45 of the top 50. … Jordan Spieth’s last top-10 in a WGC event was a T3 at the St. Jude four years ago. He shot a 68 on Thursday. … Viktor Hovland (3-under) is making his first start in a WGC event and is the highest-ranked rookie in the FedEx Cup standings at No. 23. … Dustin Johnson returned after withdrawing after the first round of the 3M Open due to a back injury. The two-time winner at TPC Southwind is 1-under despite a triple-bogey on No. 17.

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