Koepka shows there's more than one way to the top

By Jason SobelNovember 17, 2014, 4:40 pm

The number of intrigued parties watching Brooks Koepka capture his first career European Tour victory on Sunday included plenty of A-listers within the game’s inner circle.

Potential future U.S. Ryder Cup captains who now understand how to pronounce his last name. Masters Tournament officials who will need to find his address for an impending invitation. And, of course, fellow elite players who witnessed a budding star with whom they'll have to contend for a long time to come.

No group, though, observed Koepka’s final-round 65 and one-stroke triumph with more personal investment than the talented up-and-comers, those wannabe pros still plying their craft in the college and junior ranks.

Two years ago, bright-eyed and full of optimism after a fruitful career at Florida State, Koepka signed up for PGA Tour Qualifying School and promptly flamed out, failing to advance past the second stage. It’s hardly a unique story. Without any official status, most young golfers will attack the mini-tour circuit; they’ll practice harder, hopefully play better and return to Q-School one year later with experience and hunger added to the arsenal of shots that seemingly every young kid owns these days.

Koepka took a different route.

Emboldened by a world-beater attitude, he embarked on golf’s version of a post-grad study-abroad program, qualifying to play the Challenge Tour, a developmental underling of the European circuit.

This, too, is not fully unique. Koepka isn’t the first young American to take his game to foreign soil in hopes of finding a circuitous path into the game’s upper tier. In fact, he followed friend and fellow talent Peter Uihlein in his journey overseas. Koepka might be the most successful, though – and certainly among the most successful to make it this quickly.

In his first season on the Challenge Tour, he didn’t find it to be much of a challenge. He won his first tournament start, then won twice more that season, earning an automatic and immediate promotion to Europe’s big leagues. From there, the spoils continued: Sponsor’s exemptions into PGA Tour events, which he parlayed into full-time playing privileges; major championship starts, including a pair of top-15 results last year; and now, his first European Tour win, moving him to No. 35 in the current world ranking and affording him all the luxuries of playing a schedule similar to all of the game’s best players.

Not coincidentally, Koepka’s rise happened to coincide with a new PGA Tour policy. Unlike so many previous years, when an up-and-comer could pay his entry fee, advance through Q-School and earn a PGA Tour card, last year officials instituted a ceiling.

The rule change states that no matter how well a player fares during this qualifier – no matter how dominant he seems, no matter how ready he appears to make the step to compete against the Tigers and Rorys of the world – he can only reach the developmental Web.com Tour.

All of which left that rising star demographic – let’s call ‘em the 18-to-24-year-old group ready to take on the world – watching Koepka with more than just a passing interest.

He may not have provided the perfect blueprint for all of them, but he does symbolize hope.

Koepka has armed this group of up-and-comers with the knowledge that there’s more than one way to break into the game’s upper echelon. He busted the longstanding myth that players must compete in the PGA Tour’s own qualifier and if they don’t succeed, well, just try, try again.

“Looking back, it's unbelievable,” he said Sunday, the Turkish Airlines Open trophy resting nearby. “My goal from the get‑go was to come oversees and play, and I took advantage of it.”

His goal was never to inspire the potential stars of tomorrow, but that’s exactly what he’s done. If nothing else, Koepka has proven that when a young player comes to a fork in the road in their path toward a successful career, the one less traveled can still be the right one.

And so others will certainly attempt to follow in these footsteps. Some might find prosperity which mirrors that of Koepka and his burgeoning buddy Uihlein; many others will learn that it’s not as easy as they’ve made it look.

But they’ll understand that route now. On Sunday, as Koepka soared to the biggest moment of his young career so far, and as future Ryder Cup captains and Masters officials and fellow elite players witnessed the consummation of his long-term plan, that demographic of budding stars watched, too, and maybe altered their idea that there’s only one way to make it to the top.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.