Editor’s note: This story was written prior to Brooks Koepka’s appearance in the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco. He won his first PGA Tour title on Sunday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
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SAN FRANCISCO – It’s the night of Oct. 8, 2011, and Brooks Koepka is on the verge of capturing his first collegiate victory.
The Florida State senior had just carded a 2-under 70 to take a three-shot lead heading into the final round at The Brickyard Collegiate in Macon, Ga.
As he does on a daily basis, Koepka checked in with his mother, Denise Jakows, at his childhood home in West Palm Beach, Fla. They talk for a couple of minutes about Brooks’ round, but the son senses something is off.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
Denise brushes his concern aside, knowing that Brooks has the biggest day of his career ahead of him.
The next morning, Koepka trudges to The Brickyard at Riverside wearing a pink shirt and a pink ribbon on his hat, in honor of roommate Bjorn Hellgren’s mother, who is battling the cancer, and for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Koepka’s focus was impeccable as he fired a 3-under 69 to win his first collegiate title. Finally, he could silence those critics who said he couldn’t win.
Naturally, Koepka couldn’t wait to share the news with his mom, who had walked hundreds of miles following him at junior and college tournaments.
But Denise had some news of her own. She had breast cancer. What had been the crowning moment of his young career had left him stunned.
“Golf was a lot less important,” said Koepka, who is one of eight amateurs in the field at the U.S. Open this week at The Olympic Club. “I wore that hat almost every tournament (for the rest of the season). It was just showing her that I was supporting her. I didn’t talk to her much about it, but I wanted to show her that I was thinking about it.”
The Brickyard victory would have the opposite effect on his mother.
“It was the greatest gift he could have given me through that time,” she said.
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‘Man of the house’
Jakows had been diagnosed with a rare form of the cancer called triple negative, normally considered to be aggressive and in need of immediate treatment.
By the end of the month, she underwent a double mastectomy, with Brooks and his younger brother, Chase, by her side.
Brooks got time off from classes at Florida State to be with his mother, while Chase was preparing to help care for his mother at their South Florida home. The Koepka boys’ parents had divorced when Chase was an infant, and Denise said Brooks had prided himself on being the “man of the house.”
With Brooks needing to return to Tallahassee for classes a week after the surgery, Chase, 17, a senior and star golfer at Cardinal Newman High School, had to step into the role of caregiver.
“It was a tough transition,” said Chase, who will play golf at South Florida beginning this fall. “My No. 1 priority was to make sure my mom was all right. I kind of did it without realizing it. I just stepped up around the house. It helped me grow up a little bit. It is really unfortunate what happened with my mom, but it almost helped me out. It taught me to be a leader, to be on my own a little more.
“It was a blessing for our family. It brought us even closer together.”
The surgery was only the beginning of the challenge. Jakows would face eight rounds of chemotherapy – double what typical breast-cancer patients would receive – starting in January, leaving Chase with plenty of grown-up decisions to make.
“Without my brother there, it was tough,” Chase said. “I had to make sure everything in the house was straight – the groceries, laundry for me and my mom. It was a learning experience for me.
“I had to sacrifice a few things like hanging out with my friends or not spending as much time on the golf course practicing. I just had to make sure my mom was OK.”
The sacrifice wasn’t lost on Jakows.
“There didn’t seem to be a lot of light at the end of the tunnel,” said Jakows, a communications manager at G4S Secure Solutions USA. “Chemo is a long, difficult process. For my kids to see me going through this, it was rough for them, too.
“(Chase) was always giving me an arm to hold on to. I will never forget how he always anticipated my needs. We have a two-story house, and walking the steps was difficult, so he’d have water next to me or my cellphone plugged in. Those are the little things that become so important when you are trying to recover.”
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‘A lot of growing up’
Back in Tallahassee, Koepka was beginning to see life a bit differently.
He began to realize that decisions off the course really can affect what goes on inside the ropes. It was a crossroads for him: Get serious about going pro or continue to be “angry” about the direction of his game.
“I am pretty self-motivated, and I had to do a lot of growing up,” said Koepka, 22, a social-science major at FSU. “I needed to re-focus. (I needed to) be driven so I can get to my goal of being on the PGA Tour. I had to make some decisions.”
His first decision was to ignore the prevalent party life at Florida State. He decided to go “dry” for a semester, focusing on his physical fitness in the gym and watching everything he did off the course.
He credits his kid brother for the push.
“I had to start watching what I was doing off the course if I was going to succeed on it,” Koepka said. “It helped me get focused on what I wanted to do with my life. I have to give my brother a lot of props on that. He pushed me toward it. He pushed me to see what I could do.”
Chase, in turn, says his maturation on the homefront was spurred by his older brother’s dedication to the game.
“He really turned into a grown man (after their mother was diagnosed with cancer),” Chase said. “I always had looked up to him and the way he handled everything. But the way he changed (this time), he grew up. He is the person I look up to more than anybody. He has shown me hard work and dedication leads to success. He is the man I want to be.”
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Denise likes to tell the story of a newborn Brooks, laying in his bassinet next to her hospital bed about 24 hours after birth, when a veteran pediatrician came to check on them. With his back turned to Denise, he slowly turned around, a bit puzzled:
“This is the most serious child I have ever seen in my life.”
It turned out to be true.
“I don’t talk about my problems, not too much,” Koepka said. “I keep them to myself.”
Brooks’ longtime mental coach, Bob Winters, points to Denise’s “emotionally tough” approach on life to why her boys were able to handle such a dramatic situation in such a calm way.
“Denise is very strong. She has spent hundreds of miles walking around following those boys,” said Winters, who has worked with Lee Westwood and Bernhard Langer. “Golf is a game, but real life exists. Where does a person learn to believe in themselves? Denise is that great role model.
“She took on cancer and told those boys that, ‘We are not going to keep our heads down; we will keep them high and get through it.’ That is what perseverance is all about. You have to be able to give a punch and take a punch, in golf and in life.”
That ability to be mentally tough led to success for both Koepka boys during the past eight months: Brooks won three collegiate titles (Brickyard, FSU Invitational, FAU Invitational) and Chase won the Junior Heritage in South Carolina in February, dedicating the victory to his mother, who had missed the tournament for the first time because she was too weak from the chemotherapy to travel.
Recently, with Chase on the bag, Brooks qualified for the U.S. Open after playing well at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto, Fla.
“(Both Chase and Brooks) are unbelievable in how they can block out any outside distractions,” said Chris Malloy, head coach at USF and a former Florida State assistant. “They are able to focus on the task at hand. That attribute will help them down the road.”
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‘On cloud nine’
That road will lead Denise and Brooks to The Olympic Club this week, with Koepka set to play his last tournament as an amateur. He tees off at 2:42 p.m. Thursday on Olympic’s ninth hole, paired with Sam Osborne and Kyle Thompson.
Jakows took in her son’s practice rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday, walking her first 18 holes since before her diagnosis, after having completed her last round of chemotherapy nearly five weeks ago.
She is cancer-free.
“Everyone has family challenges I think, but (Brooks’) mental toughness, drive and determination was in some way challenged to get through all of this,” Jakows said. “I have so much to be thankful for, to see him ratchet down on his mental toughness and succeed.
“I am on cloud nine.”
Meanwhile, Chase will head to the Sunnehanna Amateur in Johnstown, Pa., one of the nation’s big summer events. But at least a little bit of his attention – outside the ropes – will be on the happenings in San Francisco.
“These are great moments for both of us,” Chase said. “I am playing in the biggest tournament of my career, and Brooks is also playing in the biggest of his. He’ll get a chance to see how he measures up against the guys he wants to play with, and I’ll get a chance to see where I am before I go to USF.
“We’ll be trading phone calls all week to tell each other all about it.”
For the Koepka brothers, those will be phone calls they won’t mind answering.