SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — For the longest time, Brooks Koepka was known primarily for the stamps in his passport.
His peers knew better.
As he began his first year as a PGA Tour member in the Frys.com Open last October, players would stop when they saw Koepka and watch him walk to the putting green or driving range. The consensus? This guy is going to be good.
More than the words of other players, Koepka now has the trophies to back it up.
He won the Turkish Airlines Open last November during the final stretch of the Race to Dubai on the European Tour. Against an even stronger field in the Phoenix Open, the 24-year-old Floridian went 64-66 on the weekend and played his last 47 holes without a bogey.
Koepka (pronounced KEP’-kuh) was among five players tied for the lead in the final hour, but only after rolling in a 50-foot eagle putt from the fringe on the 15th. He seized control when his 3-wood on the 322-yard 17th hole rolled over the green and stopped a foot from the water.
One hole away from his first PGA Tour victory, on a closing hole at the TPC Scottsdale framed by bunkers, he blasted his drive 331 yards down the middle.
It was a strong performance, and it looks even better considering Koepka now has won twice in his last four starts, rose to No. 19 in the world and put his name into the conversation for a U.S. team at the Presidents Cup that is getting younger by the week.
Golf is going through an undeniable generation shift, led by Rory McIlroy, who won in Dubai on Sunday to expand his growing gap in the world ranking. Jordan Spieth, the 21-year-old Texan, is No. 9 in the world. Patrick Reed, 24, won his fourth PGA Tour event at the start of the year.
Koepka was never mentioned in that group when he turned pro because he didn’t have their credentials. He was the guy who pursued his career in golf’s remote outposts — Kazakhstan and Kenya, Norway and the Czech Republic.
He had a decorated career at Florida State, though he never won a tournament until his senior year (and won three times) and played in the NCAA Championship only twice, never finishing higher than a tie for 18th.
Spieth was a Sunday feature at the Byron Nelson Championship when he was 16, joined Tiger Woods as the only multiple winners of the U.S. Junior Amateur, played on an NCAA title team at Texas and in the Walker Cup.
Reed helped Augusta State to a pair of NCAA titles and reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur.
Koepka won a Challenge Tour event — the equivalent of the Web.com Tour in Europe — in Spain, and then tried his hand at Q-school for a PGA Tour card. He failed to get out of the second stage, missing by two shots in Texas. He wasn’t alone. He tied that week with Spieth.
And that’s when their paths went in different directions.
Spieth chose sponsor exemptions, and Monday qualifying if needed, on the Web.com Tour. He got a break by tying for second in the Puerto Rico Open on the PGA Tour after getting a sponsor’s exemption. Then came a rocket rise — tour status in May, a victory in July and a spot on the Presidents Cup team in October.
Koepka headed for the airport.
He had status on the Challenge Tour from his win at the Catalunya Challenge, and he won in Italy in May. He followed with victories in Spain and Scotland to earn an instant promotion to the European Tour, each step bringing higher status. And he already had more wins than he did in college.
“Whether it be success or failure, I have learned a lot,” Koepka said. “I think I won maybe two, three times in college. But it’s funny. Looking back, I have won on the Challenge Tour, one in Europe and one here now. It’s been special. But my drive, I think, is what it is. I want to be the best player in the world. I’m not there yet, and I know it’s going to take time. But I want to get to that point.”
And he runs in good circles. His roommate in Florida and frequent travel companion on the global road of the European Tour was former U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, who tied for 13th in Dubai.
He also plays practice rounds with McIlroy, whom he knows from Europe and living in South Florida, though they rarely see each other at home.
Koepka says he might be a late bloomer, though hard work cannot be dismissed. And he has no qualms with where he went to get to where he is now. He wanted experience. He wanted four rounds on Challenge Tour events instead of being hopeful for exemptions or lucky with Monday qualifiers.
He can’t complain about the results.
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