SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Brooks Koepka remembers the disappointment like it was yesterday instead of more than two years ago.
In his first shot at getting a PGA Tour card, he didn’t get through the second stage of Q-school by two shots. He tied with a Texas teenager named Jordan Spieth.
Spieth chose to play the PGA Tour through sponsor exemptions or qualifying in the minor leagues, and it paid off quickly. He had PGA Tour status by May, won in July and played in the Presidents Cup in October.
Koepka got out his passport.
Having already won on Europe’s secondary Challenge Tour, he at least had a place to play. It took him from Kenya to Kazakhstan, from South Africa to Scotland. He toiled in the remote outposts of golf, never losing sight that his power and work ethic would get him to where he wanted to be.
That’s what made his victory Sunday in the Phoenix Open so satisfying.
“Going that route — going over to Europe — it toughened me,” Koepka said after he closed with a 5-under 66 for a one-shot victory over Hideki Matsuyama, Masters champion Bubba Watson and Ryan Palmer. “It was a blessing in disguise. At the time, I was extremely disappointed, as I’m sure Jordan Spieth was, too. But that just toughens you up, your drive. It makes you want to get out here that much more.”
Koepka was lingering for 14 holes of the final round at the TPC Scottsdale. He fell behind by four shots early on the front nine, made a couple of birdies to get back in the mix, and still was largely ignored until two big moments over a final, wild hour in the Valley of the Sun.
On the par-5 15th, Koepka holed a 50-foot eagle putt from the fringe.
After reading the putt, he told caddie Rickie Elliott: “I’m finally going to get this one there.”
“Everything was 2, 3 feet short, especially on the back nine,” Koepka said. “I don’t know why the speed control was off a little bit. Going through the fringe, uphill, just gave it a whack. And then it went in, thankfully.”
That put him atop the leaderboard at 15 under, but only as long as it took Martin Laird to two-putt from 25 feet to tie him.
Two holes later, on the 322-yard 17th, Koepka thought he was doomed when his 3-wood landed on the green and rolled over the back.
“I thought it was in the water,” he said.
Instead, it settled on the red hazard line, a foot from the water. Koepka hit a mediocre chip and missed the birdie putt, but he suddenly had the lead to himself when Laird hit into the gallery on the right, could only chip to the fat of the green and three-putted from about 50 feet for bogey.
One hole from victory, Koepka drilled his tee shot 331 yards down the middle. He describes his personality as “chill.” This was clutch.
Matsuyama, the 22-year-old rising star from Japan, had the last chance to catch him. Matsuyama took the lead on the 13th hole, but then made his first bogey in 44 holes when he three-putted the 14th. He never made another birdie, and his 18-foot chance on the 18th turned away quickly to the right.
Matsuyama, who holed out for eagle from the fairway on the opening hole, closed with a 67. He tied for second with Watson, who didn’t make a birdie over the last five holes and shot 65; and Ryan Palmer, who failed to make birdie over the last three holes and shot 66.
Laird, who began the final round with a three-shot lead, followed his bogey on the 17th with a tee shot into the water on the 18th for double bogey. He shot 72 and tied for fifth with Arizona State junior Jon Rahm.
Spieth, meanwhile, got within two shots of the lead until he ran out of holes, and made bogey on the last for a 65. He tied for seventh.
A week that began with hype over Tiger Woods, who shot 82 and missed the cut by 12 shots, ended with yet another example of a massive generation shift.
The 24-year-old Koepka didn’t get the recognition of Spieth and Justin Thomas, or former U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, his roommate in Florida with whom he often traveled in Europe. His raw power got the attention of his peers, however, and Koepka went through enough trials to mature into a rising star.
His second victory in four starts against strong fields — he won the Turkish Airlines Open during the final stretch of the Race to Dubai in Europe in November — moved him to No. 19 in the world.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Koepka, who finished at 15-under 269. “I didn’t think I would work my way up this quickly, but playing the Challenge and European tours led to this. And especially the failure I’ve had. I can’t tell you how much I learned from that.”
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.