Becoming Brooks: The road to a major title

By Ryan LavnerJune 19, 2017, 3:29 am

ERIN, Wis. – Half a world away, playing his eighth European Challenge Tour event in nine weeks, Brooks Koepka was ready to come home. It was June 2013. The then-23-year-old was in the lead, and on the verge of a life-changing promotion, when he called his manager and vented.

“He was burned out, worn out,” Koepka’s agent, Blake Smith, recalled. “It was just so much travel, but we were trying to pump him up and tell him to finish it off – and he did.”

Almost four years to the day after launching his pro career – in Scotland, of all places – the most well-traveled young American in golf looked right at home Sunday, his arms wrapped around the silver U.S. Open trophy.

With an athletic frame, massive firepower and indifferent attitude toward, well, most everything, Koepka can make elite golf look effortless. But don't be fooled, because his journey here was anything but easy.

Lightly recruited out of high school, Koepka often butted heads with Florida State coach Trey Jones over – get this – his on-course comportment. Indeed, the same guy who now confounds observers with his steely gaze and confident stride and jock swagger was a raging hothead who stunted his own development. His tantrums were so destructive, and so legendary, that coaches began to video him on the course to teach him a lesson later.

“Over the course of 54 holes in college, or 72 holes in a pro tournament, he realized just how draining it is,” said his younger brother, Chase. “He channeled that into what you see now.”

Jones said it took several spirited “man-to-man talks” to straighten out his star, and though Koepka was a three-time All-American, he didn’t win until his senior year.

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“He finally had to realize that he was losing a competitive advantage,” Jones said. “He was giving the other person he was playing against strength, he was losing energy, and he worked on it. He still has it in there a little bit, but that’s the fire that he has.”

After graduation, Koepka flunked out of Q-School on both sides of the pond and was left with few options. So in 2012, he packed his bags and headed to Europe, where he became the rare young American to tee it up on the Challenge Tour. From Norway to Kazakhstan, Qatar to Kenya, Portugal to Oman, Koepka apprenticed in 25 countries across three continents, often crammed into B&Bs with three roommates, and required 20 extra pages for his passport.

During that time he became a more well-rounded, mentally tough player, as he competed in a variety of conditions. But in overcoming the culture shock he also learned a few invaluable life skills: Motivation. Purpose. Balance.

“Not everyone can do it,” Smith said. “Not everybody is as tough as he is to get that done. It’s not a path, but he made it his and it’s pretty special.”

That victory in Scotland – made possible after the late-night, international call with Smith – propelled Koepka onto the European Tour. Later that summer, and looking for a long-term caddie, he worked with veteran looper Ricky Elliott for the first time.

“After two shots, I’m like, This boy is gonna be good,” Elliott said. “I just held on to him. It wasn’t a hard decision.”

Koepka tied for fourth at the 2014 U.S. Open and later became the European Tour’s Rookie of the Year, boosting his world ranking enough to come home. Back in his comfort zone, he broke through on the PGA Tour for the first time in early ’15, pounding his driver, his greatest weapon, all over TPC Scottsdale en route to a victory in the desert.

Still, even though he never was The Guy – not in junior golf, not in college and not early in his career, at least not compared to his major-winning peers – Koepka believed he was a massive underachiever.

“It never really came together,” he said. “I just felt like I should be winning more.”

Two developments helped push him across the finish line.

First, Koepka found an unlikely mentor in Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1 who only recently shook the reputation as an extravagantly talented tease.

On Saturday night, with Koepka playing in the penultimate group at the U.S. Open, Johnson rang his frequent practice partner, fellow gym rat and South Florida wingman. Those two will never be confused as the sport’s deepest thinkers – “It was a long phone call for us – like two minutes” – but it was just what Koepka needed to hear.

Stay patient.

Keep doing what you’re doing.

Don’t get ahead of yourself.

You’re going to win.

“There’s no doubt it’s one of those things [with DJ] that if you can do it, there’s no reason I can’t do it,” Elliott said.  

The second career-changer was Koepka’s debut last fall at the Ryder Cup.

Paired in the team format with Brandt Snedeker, Koepka was one of the Americans’ most important players, flashing his all-around game with a 3-1 record and appearing immune to pressure.

Snedeker’s favorite memory from that week came during the Saturday foursomes session.

“On the 12th hole, he stands up and dead-cold shanks one, the worst shank I’ve ever seen," Snedeker said. "We started laughing hysterically, and we somehow halved the hole. The next hole is a brutal par 3, 240 yards, and he hit a 4-iron to 6 feet, probably the best shot I’ve ever seen under pressure. It never left the pin. I said to myself, This kid has something different than most guys.”

Koepka’s performance at Erin Hills left little doubt about that.

One shot behind Brian Harman to start the final round, Koepka turned what was a tight race into a laugher. He ran off three birdies in a row on Nos. 14-16 to shoot 16-under 272 and tie the U.S. Open record for lowest score in relation to par.

All throughout what should have been a tense afternoon, Koepka mirrored his bash brother DJ and strolled the fairways with remarkable ease, chest out and shoulders back, unwavering in his belief that he had the goods to dominate. He was, in a word, his favorite word, "chill."

Watching on TV in Omaha, Neb., where the Seminoles were playing for the College World Series title, Jones marveled at his former player's drastic transformation.

“To see how calm and cool and relaxed he was …” he said, “I give him all the credit in the world for that attitude change.”

On Sunday night, with his boss at the trophy presentation, Elliott reflected on their four-year run together, a whirlwind journey that has taken them all around the globe, all the way from Wales to Wisconsin.

“To win on his home turf, I think it’ll take a while to sink in,” Elliott said.

“I think he’ll even smile.” 

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Golf's Olympic format, qualifying process remain the same

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 6:25 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Potential Olympic golfers for the 2020 Games in Tokyo were informed on Monday that the qualification process for both the men’s and women’s competitions will remain unchanged.

According to a memo sent to PGA Tour players, the qualification process begins on July 1, 2018, and will end on June 22, 2020, for the men, with the top 59 players from the Olympic Golf Rankings, which is drawn from the Official World Golf Ranking, earning a spot in Tokyo (the host country is assured a spot in the 60-player field). The women’s qualification process begins on July 8, 2018, and ends on June 29, 2020.

The format, 72-holes of individual stroke play, for the ’20 Games will also remain unchanged.

The ’20 Olympics will be held July 24 through Aug. 9, and the men’s competition will be played the week before the women’s event at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

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Webb granted U.S. Women's Open special exemption

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 6:22 pm

Karrie Webb's streak of consecutive appearances at the U.S. Women's Open will continue this summer.

The USGA announced Monday that the 43-year-old Aussie has been granted a special exemption into this year's event, held May 31-June 3 at Shoal Creek in Alabama. Webb, a winner in both 2000 and 2001, has qualified for the event on merit every year since 2011 when her 10-year exemption for her second victory ended.

"As a past champion, I'm very grateful and excited to accept the USGA's special exemption into this year's U.S. Women's Open," Webb said in a release. "I have always loved competing in the U.S. Women's Open and being tested on some of the best courses in the country."

Webb has played in the tournament every year since 1996, the longest such active streak, meaning that this summer will mark her 23rd consecutive appearance. She has made the U.S. Women's Open cut each of the last 10 years, never finishing outside the top 50 in that span.

Webb's exemption is the first handed out by the USGA since 2016, when Se Ri Pak received an invite to play at CordeValle. Prior to that the two most recent special exemptions went to Juli Inkster (2013) and Laura Davies (2009). The highest finish by a woman playing on a special exemption came in 1994, when Amy Alcott finished sixth.

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Notah: Driver is Tiger's No. 1 pre-Masters concern

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 19, 2018, 5:49 pm

Tiger Woods mounted a Sunday charge at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, sending shockwaves through Bay Hill when it looked as though he might finally claim PGA Tour victory No. 80.

But the charge came to an end at the par-5 16th, where Woods had missed wide-right three days in a row before going OB-left on Sunday en route to bogey.

Woods’ API performance featured just a handful of drivers each day, as firm and fast conditions allowed him to make frequent use of a 2-iron off the tee.

That strategy led to a second top-5 finish in as many weeks, but if Woods wants to win again, if he wants claim another major, he is going to sort out his issues with the big stick.

A guest Monday morning on the Dan Patrick Show, Golf Channel’s Notah Begay believes the driver will be a focus for Woods in his pre-Masters preparation.

“Project No. 1 over the next two weeks is going to be the driver. … Any time he has to turn a shot right to left with trouble on the left, he struggles a little bit,” Begay said.

“Off the sixth tee, off the ninth tee, there was some errant shots. And then we saw the really horrible tee shot yesterday at 16. He talked about in the post-round comments. He just didn’t commit to a shot, and the worst thing that a professional athlete can do to themselves to compromise performance is not commit.

“And so he made a terrible swing, and that’s the miss that is really difficult for him to recover from, because the majority of his misses are out to the right. So, when you eliminate one half of the golf course, you can really make your way around … a lot easier. When you have a two-way miss going, which sometimes creeps into his driver, it really makes it difficult to take out some of the trouble that you’re looking at when you’re standing on the tee box.

“So he has to focus in on trying to find some way to navigate Augusta National with the driver, because it’s a course that’s going to force you to hit driver.”

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McIlroy trails only Woods in Masters betting odds

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 5:47 pm

After rallying for victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy is once again among the betting favorites for the upcoming Masters.

McIlroy was available at 16/1 at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook last week, listed behind six other players. But after his three-shot win at Bay Hill, his odds were trimmed to 10/1, leaving him behind only betting favorite Tiger Woods.

Next month will mark McIlroy's fourth opportunity to close out the final leg of the career Grand Slam by slipping into a green jacket. Here's a look at the current betting odds, with the first round only 17 days away:

8/1: Tiger Woods

10/1: Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas

14/1: Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose

16/1: Jason Day, Jon Rahm

18/1: Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson

25/1: Paul Casey, Bubba Watson

30/1: Sergio Garcia, Tommy Fleetwood, Hideki Matsuyama

40/1: Henrik Stenson, Marc Leishman

50/1: Alex Noren

60/1: Matt Kuchar, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott, Tyrrell Hatton, Thomas Pieters

80/1: Branden Grace, Brian Harman, Tony Finau, Charley Hoffman, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay

100/1: Zach Johnson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Webb Simpson, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Charl Schwartzel, Daniel Berger, Kevin Kisner