PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Brooks Koepka played in his hometown PGA Tour a year ago on a sponsor’s exemption. He had plenty of friends and family watching at the Honda Classic, though to everyone else he was the American who only had full playing privileges in Europe.
It’s different now.
In two years, the 24-year-old Koepka has been on a fast track that has crossed international borders. He was in the minor leagues in Europe until winning three times to earn a European Tour card. He got his PGA Tour a year later on the strength of two tournaments, including a tie for fourth in the U.S. Open. And then he won the Turkish Airlines Open in the fall, and followed that by starting his 2015 campaign with a victory in the Phoenix Open.
Koepka already has as many wins as Rickie Fowler.
He is No. 20 in the world, one spot behind Phil Mickelson and one spot ahead of Graeme McDowell.
“I think I’ve changed a lot since then,” Koepka said. “I was chasing, trying to get my tour card out here, and there’s a big difference where I am mentally and where my game was at and where I it is now. The confidence level last year, I was a bit of a hothead. I only had seven spots to really get my card over here, so every shot — everything — it was super important for me.”
He is back to being his favorite word — chill.
He is having fun. And he is considered one of the top players in a strong field at PGA National. The Florida Swing begins Thursday with the strongest field of the year.
Rory McIlroy is making his first appearance on American soil in five months, trying to keep the momentum from the last nine months and hopeful that it lasts through the Masters, where he has a shot at the career Grand Slam. U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer is making his America debut this year.
Sergio Garcia, after a bogey-bogey finish at Riviera last week to miss the playoff by one shot, also is in the field.
The natural attraction is McIlroy, who won the Honda Classic two years ago and lost in a four-man playoff a year ago won by Russell Henley. McIlroy has been on a roll, winning four times and finishing second in four other tournaments during his last 12 starts worldwide.
The objective is to stay sharp, and to play well during the Florida swing — Honda, Doral, Bay Hill — to build confidence and carry momentum to Augusta National, where he goes for the only major he has never won.
“I feel like I’ve got a nice schedule going into Augusta,” McIlroy said. “I’m not playing too much, but I’m playing just enough that I should be as sharp as possible going in there. I haven’t thought about it. What I really thought about over the past couple of weeks is getting ready for these events coming up, and trying to play as well as I possibly can in those. So that gives me a little confidence going into a little break to prepare as well as I can for Augusta.”
McIlroy enjoys being No. 1, though he doesn’t feel as though he is carrying golf in the absence of Tiger Woods. There are too many other young players with great potential, from Jordan Spieth to Patrick Reed. Fowler gets a mention. And so does Koepka.
“I’m excited to get back here,” Koepka said. “I’ve been back for two weeks practicing, trying to get ready for this event. Things are going well.”
He looked back to 2013 when it wasn’t going all that swell. Koepka was in contention for a third Challenge Tour victory and was ready to come home. He was tired of the travel, staying alone in hotels. His agent, Blake Smith, talked him into finishing out the tournament and Koepka went on to win to earn his European Tour card. The next day, he was the medalist in a British Open qualifier.
“It’s crazy how things work, is it?” he said.
Koepka really didn’t have a choice if he wanted to hone his game. He failed the second stage of Q-school, just like Spieth. He didn’t make it through Q-school in Europe. He could have stayed home and tried to qualify at PGA Tour or Web.com Tour events. But he wanted to get better. And that meant playing a full schedule, hopeful it would lead him to places like the Honda Classic. He’s no longer a curious figure. He’s a contender.
“It was part of the plan,” he said. “Did I see that three years ago? Probably not. But I’m very happy.”
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.