Brooks Koepka’s road to the top was far from conventional for an all-American boy. But, as he tells Brian Wacker, it made him the major star he is today.
The US Open Champion reflects on his unconventional route to the top.
The path to stardom rarely unfolds in a straight line. Neither do the roads in Kazakstahn or Kenya, Norway or the Czech Republic, though they can be enlightening. Brooks Koepka’s formal education came at Florida State University, but the tools of his trade would be more directly learned in those remote outposts with the kind of postgraduate study on the European Tour’s Challenge Tour circuit that have proved useful in golf and in life and helped take him all the way to a major championship at last summer’s US Open.
For young American players coming out of college there are a few ways to get to the PGA Tour. The most common include some combination of a handful of starts in the big leagues on sponsor exemptions, qualifying school and a season or two on the developmental Web.com Tour. The better the performances, the shorter the road. There aren’t any guarantees but there is a level of convenience and comfort not having to leave the friendly confines of the United States.
There was nothing comfortable or convenient about the night Koepka landed in Kenya just after midnight for a Challenge Tour event five years ago. Sharing a cab with Scottish player George Murray in what was supposed to be a 20-minute ride to the hotel, it turned into a three-hour ordeal with Koepka and Murray grabbing their mobile phones and cash when they saw men in hoods emerge from the filling station the driver had pulled into. “We didn’t know where we were,” remembers Koepka now. “It was pretty scary to be honest.”
It was also unusual that an American kid born in Florida, whose great uncle was former Pittsburgh Pirates star shortstop Dick Groat and who had made the local high school golf team as a sixth-
grader, was there in the first place. There were, if nothing else, routes much closer to home.
But none of them interested Koepka all that much. Nor did they necessarily apply. While he enjoyed a stellar collegiate career, the buffed bomber who could always hit it a mile didn’t win a tournament until his senior year, when he won three times, and had played in the NCAA Championship just twice, with his best finish a tie for 18th. He attempted to secure a PGA Tour card via Q School at the end of 2012, his first year as a professional, but came up short and seemed to relish a road less travelled, at least compared to his peers.
Some of his contemporaries, meanwhile, also had more polished resumes. Jordan Spieth, three years Koepka’s junior, had already featured at the HP Byron Nelson Championship by the time he was 16 years old and not long after joined Tiger Woods as the only other player to win the U.S. Junior Amateur multiple times. He also helped the University of Texas to a national championship as a freshman and played in the Walker Cup. He, too, tried and failed at Q School in 2012 but went the traditional route with sponsor exemptions, Monday qualifying and a few Web.com Tour starts. One of those exemptions came at the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open, where he tied for second just handful of starts into 2013. Spieth took off from there, securing PGA Tour status in May, winning in July and landing on the Presidents Cup team in October.
Koepka, on the other hand, collected stamps in his passport. Trophies, too. A victory in Spain in 2012 was his first and guaranteed him status on the Challenge Tour. But he left the trophy behind. His dad Bob paid $325 to have it shipped home, then realised why his son hadn’t brought it with him in the first place. It was a cheap plastic thing that didn’t even have Brooks’ name on it.
That was hardly the only memorable moment. That scary night in Kenya? Koepka moved on quickly from that, too. He finished fifth that week. Three starts later, he won again, in Italy, before securing another victory in Spain and one more in Scotland. The last one nearly never happened, though. On the back end of a long stretch on the road and feeling increasingly homesick, Koepka called his manager, Blake Smith, and told him he wanted to come home. Smith convinced him otherwise. The next day he went out and won.
“I called him and I was like, ‘I don’t even want to play,’” Koepka says. “I was just tired of golf. Tired of travelling. I just wanted to be home, even though I think I had the lead at that point and was about to win again. For some reason I just wanted to get out and go home. I still don’t know why.”
If that wasn’t enough, on the overnight drive from the Scottish Highlands (and after a weather delay) to an Open Championship qualifier at Sunningdale, Koepka’s car got a flat. No big deal. He changed the tire, made it to Berkshire and qualified, shooting 69-65 on two hours’ sleep.
The victory in Scotland, by the way, landed him European Tour status and away he went with each step bringing better status. He added a win in Turkey in 2014 and another a year later on the PGA Tour in Phoenix.
“I learned how to play different golf in different conditions,” he says. reflecting back on those fun times that he often shared with fellow American and friend former US Amateur champion Peter Uihlein. “That’s where I grew up. That’s how I learned to play golf. You really had to golf your ball and know how to flight it and how to score. I wasn’t concerned with my mechanics, I was just trying to score.”
He certainly scored – and big – last June in America’s heartland. Having already won a handful of titles around the world, Koepka’s breakout moment came on the game’s biggest stage and on a giant patch of farmland turned golf course in middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin. Beginning the final round at Erin Hills a shot off the lead of Brian Harman, he quickly erased the deficit with birdies on his first two holes. Harman then bogeyed 12 and 13 and Koepka, who made a testy eight-footer to save par at 13, dropped the hammer with three straight birdies on the 14th, 15th and 16th holes. He shot a scorching 67 to win by four and in doing so tied the tournament scoring record set by Rory McIlroy in 2011 at 16-under par.
“It didn’t make a difference what course I was playing,” Koepka tells
THE LEAVE OF ABSENCE WORKED. I KNOW MYSELF PRETTY WELL AND I KNEW I NEEDED TO DO SOMETHING.
now of the 7,741-yard par-72 behemoth. “I was driving it well, putting it well. It was a set-up I felt comfortable on when it came to the key shots. It was a real ball-striker’s course.”
It also came as little shock to the man who has been around him as much as anybody the last five years, coach Claude Harmon III.
“If you look at the way he played in the majors the two or three years before that, it wasn’t a surprise,” Harmon says.
Beginning at the 2014 US Open at Pinehurst, Koepka finished in the top 10 four times in the 11 majors he played leading up to last year’s US Open. Three of them were top fives, with one of them providing significant motivation. Tom Watson was the US Ryder Cup captain in 2014 and that summer after Koepka had tied for fourth at Pinehurst came across the 24-year-old and was impressed by the way he hit the ball and carried himself. He then proceeded to ask him what club he was from. Oof.
“Yeah I remember that,” Koepka says with a slight chuckle. “But I didn’t think I was deserving to be on that team. I was a real long shot and no one knew me [in the US]. I feel like I was always under the radar, and I’m not going to suck up to the media. I don’t do much with social media, either. I might not get enough attention but that doesn’t bother me.”
Two years later, Koepka didn’t have to worry about being picked for the Ryder Cup. He made the team on merit and performed impressively, returning a 3-10 record to help the Americans romp to a 17-11 victory over Europe. The score wasn’t close thanks in part to Koepka, who partnered Brandt Snedeker to smoke Martin Kaymer and Danny Willet, 5&4, in Friday’s afternoon fourballs in what was the only victory for the Americans in the session as the US took a 5-3 lead to the next day instead of being tied at four apiece. The next morning, Koepka and Snedeker dispatched Henrik Stenson and Matthew Fitzpatrick, 3&2, in foursomes to again help spark the home team. And the rest is history.
“There’s definitely something to be said for that experience,” Koepka said of that Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. “It was one of the most nervous shots I had to hit, the first tee shot of my first match. It was a lot of pressure.”
Harmon called the effort a “huge stepping stone” for him professionally.
If Koepka felt any heat at Erin Hills, it wasn’t obvious, and if the performance looked coolly familiar it should have. A year earlier, Dustin Johnson won the same tournament at Oakmont. The two players share many of the same characteristics in their play and their personality. They also live near one another in South Florida, often work out together and have become close friends.
The night before the final round, Johnson, who had missed the cut, called Koepka and gave him a brief pep talk. The following morning, Koepka’s dad Bob called and provided a lengthier one. In the final round, Koepka stuck to his aggressive nature and hit 86 per cent of his greens in regulation, the best return of anyone in the field that afternoon.
“I think times are changing,” says Harmon. “In the past, historians or media or players would say you had to play like this or you had to play like that to win a major. But this is a different generation. Guys today are doing what they do. They don’t conform.”
In doing it his way and refusing to conform, Koepka went out and became a major winner, a US Open champion. He also gave his dad the best Father’s Day present he could: A trophy he wouldn’t leave behind.
I’VE WATCHED HIGHLIGHTS WHEN THEY’VE BEEN ON TV AND THEY SENT ME A DVD OF THE BROADCAST THAT I’LL PROBABLY WATCH AT SOME POINT.