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.

Golf World (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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 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 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


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.


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