ERIN, Wis. – Half a world away, playing his eighth European Challenge Tour event in nine weeks, Brooks Koepka was ready to come home. It was June 2013. The then-23-year-old was in the lead, and on the verge of a life-changing promotion, when he called his manager and vented.
“He was burned out, worn out,” Koepka’s manager, Blake Smith, recalled. “It was just so much travel, but we were trying to pump him up and tell him to finish it off – and he did.”
Almost four years to the day after launching his pro career – in Scotland, of all places – the most well-traveled young American in golf looked right at home Sunday, his arms wrapped around the silver U.S. Open trophy.
With an athletic frame, massive firepower and indifferent attitude toward, well, most everything, Koepka can make elite golf look effortless. Don’t be fooled, because his journey here was anything but easy.
Lightly recruited out of high school, Koepka often butted heads with Florida State coach Trey Jones over – get this – his on-course comportment. Indeed, the same guy who now confounds observers with his steely gaze and confident stride and jock swagger was a raging hothead who stunted his own development. His tantrums were so destructive, and so legendary, that coaches began to video him on the course to teach him a lesson later.
“Over the course of 54 holes in college, or 72 holes in a pro tournament, he realized just how draining it is,” said his younger brother, Chase. “He channeled that into what you see now.”
Jones said it took several spirited “man-to-man talks” to straighten out his star, and though Koepka was a three-time All-American, he didn’t win until his senior year.
“He finally had to realize that he was losing a competitive advantage,” Jones said. “He was giving the other person he was playing against strength, he was losing energy, and he worked on it. He still has it in there a little bit, but that’s the fire that he has.”
After graduation, Koepka bombed out of Q-School on both sides of the pond and was left with few options. So in 2012, he packed his bags and headed to Europe, where he became the rare young American to tee it up on the Challenge Tour. From Norway to Kazakhstan, Qatar to Kenya, Portugal to Oman, Koepka apprenticed in 25 countries across three continents, often crammed into B&Bs with three roommates, and required 20 extra pages for his passport.
During that time he became a more well-rounded, mentally tough player, as he competed in a variety of conditions. But in overcoming the culture shock he also learned a few invaluable life skills: Motivation. Purpose. Balance.
“Not everyone can do it,” Smith said. “Not everybody is as tough as he is to get that done. It’s not a path, but he made it his and it’s pretty special.”
That victory in Scotland – made possible after the late-night, international call with Smith – propelled Koepka onto the European Tour. Later that summer, and looking for a long-term caddie, he worked with veteran looper Ricky Elliott for the first time.
“After two shots, I’m like, This boy is gonna be good,” Elliott said. “I just held on to him. It wasn’t a hard decision.”
Koepka tied for fourth at the 2014 U.S. Open and later became the European Tour’s Rookie of the Year, boosting his world ranking enough to come home. Back in his comfort zone, he broke through on the PGA Tour for the first time in early ’15, pounding his driver, his greatest weapon, all over TPC Scottsdale en route to a victory in the desert.
Still, even though he never was The Guy – not in junior golf, not in college and not early in his career, at least not compared to his major-winning peers – Koepka believed he was a massive underachiever.
“It never really came together,” he said. “I just felt like I should be winning more.”
Two developments helped push him across the finish line.
First, Koepka found an unlikely mentor in Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1 who only recently shook the reputation as an extravagantly talented tease.
On Saturday night, with Koepka playing in the penultimate group at the U.S. Open, Johnson rang his frequent practice partner, fellow gym rat and South Florida wingman. Those two will never be confused as the sport’s deepest thinkers – “It was a long phone call for us – like two minutes” – but it was just what Koepka needed to hear.
Keep doing what you’re doing.
Don’t get ahead of yourself.
You’re going to win.
“There’s no doubt it’s one of those things [with DJ] that if you can do it, there’s no reason I can’t do it,” Elliott said.
The second career-changer was Koepka’s debut last fall at the Ryder Cup.
Paired in the team format with Brandt Snedeker, Koepka was one of the Americans’ most important players, flashing his all-around game with a 3-1 record and appearing immune to pressure.
Snedeker’s favorite memory from that week came during the Saturday foursomes session.
“We’re struggling, not hitting fairways, and I hit one into the second cut,” he said. “He stands up and dead-cold shanks one, the worst shank I’ve ever seen. We started laughing hysterically, and we somehow halved the hole. The next hole is a brutal par 3, 240 yards, and he hit a 4-iron, probably the best shot I’ve ever seen under pressure. It never left the pin. I said to myself, This kid has something different than most guys.”
Koepka’s performance at Erin Hills left little doubt about that.
One shot behind Brian Harman to start the final round, Koepka turned what was a tight race into a laugher. He ran off three birdies in a row on Nos. 14-16 to shoot 16-under 272 and tie the U.S. Open record for lowest score in relation to par.
All throughout what should have been a tense afternoon, Koepka mirrored his bash brother DJ and strolled the fairways with remarkable ease, chest out and shoulders back, unwavering in his belief that he had the goods to dominate. He was, in a word, his favorite word, “chill.”
Watching on TV in Omaha, Neb., where the Seminoles were playing for the NCAA baseball title, Jones marveled at his former player’s drastic transformation.
“To see how calm and cool and relaxed he was …” he said, “I give him all the credit in the world for that attitude change.”
On Sunday night, with his boss at the trophy presentation, Elliott reflected on their four-year run together, a whirlwind journey that has taken them all around the globe, all the way from Wales to Wisconsin.
“To win on his home turf, I think it’ll take a while to sink in,” Elliott said.
“I think he’ll even smile.”