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Golf’s superstars shine in Jersey City; Koepka, McIlroy speak before Northern Trust tourney at Liberty National

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All of the PGA Tour’s top players were at Liberty National Golf Club for the Northern Trust tournament last week, including top-ranked golfer Brooks Koepka.
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Also on hand was No. 2-ranked Rory McIlroy.
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All of the PGA Tour’s top players were at Liberty National Golf Club for the Northern Trust tournament last week, including top-ranked golfer Brooks Koepka.
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Also on hand was No. 2-ranked Rory McIlroy.

Last week, the top 125 golfers in the Professional Golfers Association Tour all convened in Jersey City and in particular Liberty National Golf Club for the Northern Trust, the first leg of the PGA’s FedEx Cup series.

It meant that all the top golfers in the world were situated in Jersey City for all to see.

Needless to say, it marked an exciting time taking place once again at Liberty National, which since it opened in 2006, has hosted the Barclays Invitational in 2009 and 2013 and hosted the President’s Cup in 2017.

Last Wednesday, before the field of 125 teed it up for real, a few of the top golfers participated in the Pro-Am Tournament, being paired with some of the nation’s top amateur players. The PGA Tour players didn’t receive any pay for their participation in the Pro-Am, but they were able to get a full lay of the land with the majestic views of the New York harbor and skyline.

Frankly put, there is no better backdrop in all of professional golf. It’s a sight to be seen and the golfers seem to enjoy it.

The world’s top two ranked golfers, namely American Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland, played in the Pro-Am, then had a chance to meet with the media afterwards.

Koepka has clearly established himself as being the top golfer in the world and is certainly the favorite to capture the FedEx Cup after the playoffs take place over the next seven weeks.

Koepka currently leads the FedEx Cup standings with 2,887 points, some 572 points ahead of runner-up McIlroy. Each PGA Tour tournament championship is worth roughly 2,000 points, so if Koepka fell flat on his face, McIlroy could be right there to maneuver past the 29-year-old West Palm Beach native.

But that seems highly unlikely, considering Koepka just seems to be hitting his perfect stride at the right time. So far this year, Koepka has won three PGA Tour championships – namely the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in South Korea last October, the WGS/FedEx/St. Jude’s Classic in Memphis in July and the most impressive title, the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black on Long Island in May.

Koepka, a two-time winner at both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, has earned $9.5 million on the Tour this season and has spent the last eight weeks as the top-ranked golfer in the world.

But Koepka says that he doesn’t pay much attention to the rankings – although that’s pretty hard to fully believe. There’s a certain amount of attention that comes with being the world’s best golfer and there’s definitely a level of expectations.

“It has been a great season for me,” Koepka said. “I think it just shows how consistent I’ve been. It’s been exciting and then it’s been disappointing. But there’s been this buzz and excitement all year.”

Koepka said that he was ready to take on the challenges of Liberty National and what the course has to offer.

“I love this place,” Koepka said. “The golf course is exciting. In my mind, there are 10 tough holes and the rest you just have to operate. If you put it in the fairway, you have an excellent chance. But it’s a very tough golf course. You have to position yourself in the early going to make a difference. There are pretty small greens and they have very subtle drops. I think because of the rain, this course is a little softer.”

Koepka offered those words before the skies opened with a deluge that flooded northern New Jersey. It was not immediately known how the course handled the heavy rain before the tourney officially began on Thursday.

Koepka said that he visited New York before as a kid, but looked forward to the tournament, even though he had no plans to do anything except play golf. He’s been known to be somewhat of a loner and definitely not one to socialize and party during the course of a tourney. In fact, Koepka has hired a personal chef and trainer to work with him during breaks in the action.

“That has paid off,” Koepka said of the chef and trainer. “I don’t have much time to do anything else, so it’s good to have a meal ready when I come back [to his hotel room]. I have a meal ready when I come back and then I kick my feet up and relax. I don’t go out at all. I’m too busy preparing and practicing and working out to do anything at all.”

Obviously, it’s a routine that has worked.

“Everyone makes a big deal about my mindset,” Koepka said. “For me, it’s all about playing and practicing.”

And as for the money?

“I’ve never worried about that,” Koepka said. “I set up dates for my financial people all the time. They handle everything. I’m just here for the competition. I like the competition. It goes back to when I was five-years-old. I wanted to be Tiger Woods or Adam Scott. I just wanted to be the best in the world. That’s all. The competition is what I play for. It doesn’t matter what I’m playing. I’m super competitive. I could be playing ping-pong and I’d want to kick your butt. It’s the energy that comes with winning. It’s what I dreamed about as a kid.”

And Koepka is glad to have Woods in the field in Jersey City, which was expected to draw some 60,000 fans to the waterfront, as long as Woods remains around.

“Everyone is better with him here,” said Koepka, who played nine holes of practice with Woods on Tuesday. “He’s good for the tour, good for the fans. When he’s healthy, it’s good for the sport. Everything is better.”

Koepka was presented with his trophy for capturing the $1 million Aon Risk Reward Challenge for having the best score at designated challenging holes in the PGA Tour events.

McIlroy, now 30 years old, is also having a great 2019, having collected $7.3 million in paychecks, including wins at the Canadian Open in Hamilton, Ontario, where McIlroy shot an incredible 22 under par and a sizzling final round of 61. McIlroy has also four major championships on his resume, including two PGA Championships like Koepka. But McIlroy has not won a major tournament since 2014.

“I don’t think I’ve celebrated my wins enough,” said McIlroy, who has won twice in 2019, the Canadian Open and the Players Championship. “Sometimes, it’s nice to hide away after a win and not be known, but I don’t think that’s possible now.”

McIlroy also admitted to the tournament being better with his good friend Woods playing well.

“I think we all know that golf is better when Tiger is around,” McIlroy said. “It’s such a shot in the arm for everyone involved. He can put away the clubs tomorrow and live happily ever after, but it’s great that he wants to play and picks the places where he can compete.”

McIlroy likes returning to Liberty National later in the season.

“There’s certainly a different feel now,” McIlroy said. “It makes things more interesting at the end of the season. I want to end it on a positive note. I’m ready and excited to get it going.”

After the Northern Trust, the field for the FedEx Cup playoffs will be narrowed down to 70 in the BMW Championship in Medina, Illinois next month, then to 30 for the Tour Championship at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta where the PGA Tour has concluded play every year since 2004.

Bryson DeChambeau is the defending champion of the Northern Trust, which brings major excitement and a major buzz to Jersey City and Hudson County every year.

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.com (this week, Jim explores the incredible rise of the once-downtrodden New York Mets) and you can follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar.