World traveler Koepka takes circuitous route to Tour

By Will GrayOctober 10, 2014, 11:31 pm

NAPA, Calif. – At 24 years old, Brooks Koepka has more passport stamps than most men twice his age.

Kazakhstan. Kenya. Qatar. Just in the last month, he has traveled from Switzerland to the Netherlands to Scotland before racing across eight time zones to tee it up this week in wine country.

Koepka’s path to the PGA Tour has been circuitous to say the least, but it has also been effective. Barely two years after turning pro, he arrived at this week’s Open a full-fledged member of the PGA Tour.

Now it’s on to the next step.

After rounds of 68 and 70, Koepka’s name is on the first page of the leaderboard at Silverado Resort & Spa, where he will begin the weekend four shots behind leader Martin Laird. It’s a familiar situation for Koepka, who parlayed a sponsor invite into the 54-hole lead in this event last year at CordeValle, where he ultimately tied for third.

“It’s nice to come back. Obviously it’s at a different course, but you know, this event is special to me,” he said.

It’s an understandable sentiment, since return trips have been somewhat of a rarity for Koepka as a professional.

After three All-American seasons at Florida State, he traded in his amateur credentials following a missed cut at the 2012 U.S. Open. The typical options for a player at that stage in his career would likely include relying on sponsor invites, chasing status on the Tour or perhaps earning experience on the domestic mini-tours.

Koepka, though, had eyes on Europe. Open: Articles, videos and photos

While the popular trend in recent years has been for the top Europeans to take up residence and play more in the U.S., Koepka reversed that scenario, opting to play on the European Challenge Tour in 2012 and again in 2013. The tournament locations were hardly tourist destinations. Koepka’s itinerary included early stops in Trondheim, Norway; Hyvinkaa, Finland; and Almaty, Kazakhstan.

In addition to racking up frequent-flier miles, Koepka picked up another valuable asset during his travels – he learned to win.

His first 12 months as a pro yielded four victories, from Spain to Italy to Scotland.

“Having yourself under pressure, it’s different. It’s hard to win,” he said. “I think people think it’s easy watching on TV, but it is hard.”

Koepka’s time on the Challenge Tour yielded full-time status on the European Tour, as well as an opportunity to use a handful of sponsor exemptions on the PGA Tour. His first invite came at this event a year ago, and after moving up the FedEx Cup non-member points list, he earned his card for the 2014-15 season with a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open.

“I keep telling everybody, it was kind of in stages,” he said. “The first couple PGA Tour events it was kind of like, ‘Let’s just make the cut and let’s try to build something here.’ I felt pressure, too, because I only had the seven starts (on sponsor exemptions) and I knew I had to play well.”

Koepka’s unorthodox ascension to the PGA Tour shows that there is more than one route to the game’s biggest stage, and his success has been noticed by the likes of Cameron Wilson, who won the NCAA individual title in May while at Stanford and who hopes to follow in Koepka’s footsteps by turning a sponsor invite at this event into a high finish.

“I think it just shows that there’s a lot of good young players now, and that for a lot of guys, it’s not a huge leap from college or amateur golf to turning pro,” said Wilson, who is 5 under after two rounds. “It seems like a lot of guys are as ready as they’ve ever been.”

While Koepka’s rise has been a quick one, he is hardly resting on his laurels. A season that begins with a handful of sponsor exemptions and ends with a PGA Tour card would be viewed by most as a wild success, but his self-assessment is decidedly mixed.

“This year has been a little disappointing that I haven’t won. So I’d like to change that,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing well. I’m knocking on the door the last few weeks, even in Europe. I felt like I had a couple of chances to win.”

Two years of globetrotting have netted Koepka a spot on the PGA Tour, and his chase for that maiden victory will continue this weekend at Silverado.

He admits, though, that his ultimate focus remains on an even bigger prize down the line.

“The next thing will be a major, I guess,” he said. “I feel like my game is suited for it and I’m playing well. I don’t see any reason why not.”

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

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CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)