Ryan Brehm stands out in a room filled with PGA Tour rookies. Amid the fearless twenty-somethings, Brehm looks if not fatherly, then coach-like, which is apropos considering it wasn’t that long ago when he wore that title proudly.
But that’s getting ahead of what is a made-for-TV story.
For Brehm, his path to the Tour began in 2008 when he bolted Michigan State with legendary status. He’d help lead the Spartans to three Big Ten titles (2004, ’06 and ’07), won five times during his career in East Lansing and was the ’04 Big Ten freshman of the year.
But that snapshot from his resume really doesn’t fully explain the lore that is Ryan Brehm in Michigan circles.
“The hardest part for Ryan is he’s a folk hero in this state because he hits it so far, so when he turned pro the expectations of others weren’t really in line with the realities of playing professional golf,” said Casey Lubahn, a close friend and the man who fired Brehm from his “dream job.” But, again, that’s getting ahead of the narrative.
Brehm is long – crazy long – even by modern professional standards. In 2016 on the Web.com Tour, he ranked ninth in driving distance (317-yard average) with what he calls his “control” swing, and recorded the season’s third-longest drive (421 yards) in July at the Utah Championship.
But things didn’t go as planned for Brehm when he left Michigan State. He failed to find status, well, anywhere, and after a few years struggling on various mini-tours he called it a career and returned to East Lansing.
He was 25 and he liked life as an assistant coach. Well, he liked most of being an assistant.
“I thought I wanted to be a coach,” said Brehm, who added that he wasn’t a fan of the paperwork that goes with the job. “I played for a while and didn’t have much success. I thought coaching was good for me, it helped me grow up a little bit.”
In 2011, he found himself serving as the Spartans interim head coach. It was all so perfect, Michigan hero returns to save the MSU golf program. But this isn’t that kind of story. Brehm’s friends and family had other plans.
Lubahn, who served as MSU’s assistant when Brehm was playing for the Spartans, returned to East Lansing to take over the head coaching duties, and one of his first acts was to get rid of Brehm.
“Ryan was my assistant for a year before I fired him. I told him, ‘You’re too good to be doing this, go play,’” Lubahn laughed.
Lubahn and Brehm remain friends, in fact Lubahn was in Brehm’s wedding last fall, proving that friendships can survive the occasional pink slip. But then Lubahn was hardly the only member of Brehm’s inner circle pushing him to trade in his coaching duties for one more turn at the professional ranks.
“I thought I was too talented to give it up,” Brehm said. “My dad, my wife, people who really knew me and supported me wanted me to play.”
Brehm, who is making his second start as a Tour member this week at the Sanderson Farms Championship, credits his second stint at Michigan State as a coach for making the second chapter of his professional career much more enjoyable.
Brehm said he’s a smarter player than when he first turned professional, and that he now has a “shot shape” that he sticks with, compared to his old philosophy of hitting it hard and hoping for the best.
“If I was to look at where I am now compared to then, I don’t think I was ready for the professional game,” Brehm said. “My game was sporadic, I had a lot of talent but didn’t know what to do with it and the day to day things, knowing what to do with my time.”
Serving as an assistant at Michigan State – and his abbreviated stop as the interim head coach – helped him understand the importance of time and game management; as did this season on the Web.com Tour, where he won the Portland Open to secure his first trip to the Tour.
All that experience, however, doesn’t mean he’s immune to the pitfalls of being a Tour rookie.
“It took me 45 minutes to park today,” he laughed as he prepared for his first start as a Tour member at the Safeway Open earlier this month. “I went to the wrong place."
Yet in a room filled with the rookie class of 2016, the 30-year-old doesn’t exactly fit the mold. But then everything about his professional journey to the Tour has been different.
From phenom to failed pro, from assistant coach to Tour rookie, Brehm’s story is truly unique and far from complete. Asked if he’d ever consider going back to the coaching ranks, he dismissed the idea with an easy smile – he wears professional golf well. But there is a moment of hesitation.
“I want to keep doing this [pro golf] and keep getting better if I’m fortunate enough for the next 20, 30 years,” Brehm said before allowing, “the only way I’d do it is at Michigan State.”
Of all people, Brehm knows it’s always best to keep your options open.