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 Frys.com 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 Web.com Tour or perhaps earning experience on the domestic mini-tours.
Koepka, though, had eyes on Europe.
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.”