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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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”