BLAINE – Brooks Koepka had never seen the TPC Twin Cities until Wednesday’s Pro-Am at the 3M Open. After playing the front nine early in the morning, he came away impressed with both the course and the atmosphere.

“The golf course is really good,” said Koepka, who barely missed out on winning his third straight U.S. Open last month at Pebble Beach. “I think it suits me quite well. It’s a longer course, so I can hit driver and take advantage of it and cut some corners, and I think that will be an advantage this week. These fairways are about as good as I’ve seen. The greens are really nice. It seems like a great golf course. I’m excited to play it.”

Minnesota golf fans appear to be primed to keep their reputation as a golf-crazy state. Hazeltine National has been the site of numerous major championships and the 2016 Ryder Cup, but this is the first regular PGA Tour stop in the state since 1969.

Koepka, No. 1 in the world rankings, began his Pro-Am round at 7 a.m., and was surrounded by fans on every hole.

“I can’t believe how many people are out there on a Wednesday,” Koepka said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that, especially at 7 a.m. With Fourth of July weekend, I’m sure a bunch of people got off work. I think it could be a perfectly timed event and we’re going to see a lot of fans. It’s a great sporting town.”

Koepka said he’s fan of the PGA Tour’s new schedule in 2019 that compressed the four majors into four months. The PGA Championship, which he won for the second straight year at Bethpage Black, moved from August to May this year. The Players Championship was moved from June to March. That allowed for two new tour stops – last week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit and the 3M Open.

“(The schedule) is way easier,” Koepka said. “If you get hot, it’s a good feeling knowing that the majors are close together and if all you have to do is just continually get a little bit better every time, it makes our planning a lot easier. It’s fun to play difference golf courses. It’s more fun for me.”

Open approaching

Koepka will be trying to win his fifth major since the 2017 U.S. Open in two weeks at The Open Championship at Royal Portrush in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It’s the first the championship will be played at Portrush since 1951.

It will be Koepka’s first trip to Ireland, so he’ll be seeing the course for the first time. But his caddy, Ricky Elliott, is from Portrush and grew up playing the scenic sea-side track.

“I hope he knows that golf course like the back of his hand,” Koepka said. “It’s links golf, it’s always a bit different because I see about 10, 15 different shots every time I’m over the ball. Even from 150 yards, you could just chip a little 7-iron and have it roll up. It’s so interesting to me. I enjoy that, the option of shots it creates.”

Ryder Cup memories

Koepka’s only other trip to Minnesota was a historic one. He had a 3-1 record – including a 5-and-4 thrashing of Danny Willet in the Sunday singles -- while helping the U.S. to a 17-11 victory over Europe at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National in Chaska.

“It was unbelievable, but I don’t think I knew what was going on being the first Ryder Cup,” Koepka said. “I think I was more in awe and shock. The whole week I was just like a deer in headlights. It was awesome to look back at it, and we still talk about it and how cool it was. That atmosphere – I’m ready for the Ryder Cup to come back to the States. Having everybody behind us, playing for your country and then to have the fan base to play in front of is unlike anything. It makes it feel like a true sporting event.”

Phil glad to be back

Though this is Phil Mickelson’s first look at TPC Twin Cities, his memories of Minnesota date back to 1991, when he played the U.S. Open as an amateur at Hazeltine. He also played in the 2002 and ’09 PGA Championships there, and was a key member of the winning Ryder Cup team. His halved singles match with Sergio Garcia was an epic birdie-fest.

“I’ve got a lot of great memories here and experiences throughout my career,” said Mickelson, a 44-time winner on the PGA Tour including five majors. “The highlights being the Ryder Cup. It’s one of those moments that I cherish in my career and being part of that team was very special. Getting that win was exceptional. The fans here are just really nice people, and I know they’re excited because they’ve got a really good team this year in the Twins. It’s fun to see how supported that team is.

“This event fit well into the schedule. The course is in exceptional shape. It’s pristine. You can really make a lot of putts because the greens are in perfect shape and you can get to the pins because they’re soft and receptive. So if you drive the ball reasonably well, and even if you hit it in the rough, you can bet the ball stops on the greens. It think it’s playable, but it’s a fairly long golf course.”

Mickelson will next play in The Open championship where he’ll try to win that event for the first time since 2013 at Muirfield.

Editor’s note: Tom Fenton was a sportswriter for 15 years before joining the Union-Times. He has covered the PGA Championship, U.S. Amateur, Greater Milwaukee Open and numerous Minnesota amateur tournaments. In April, he played Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, which will host The Open Championship later this month.

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