'Road isn't for everyone,' but Koepka thrives on it

Former Florida State All-American Brooks Koepka won three times on the Challenge Tour in 2013, graduating to the European Tour.

Former Florida State All-American Brooks Koepka won three times on the Challenge Tour in 2013, graduating to the European Tour.

GULLANE, Scotland – Like wind and rain, gorse bushes and pot bunkers, what adds great flavor to the Open Championship are extreme travel experiences.

Now nothing has ever really surpassed Johnny McDermott’s 1914 trip, of course. Sidetracked by ocean liner delays going over to Prestwick, he failed to make it in time and never got a chance to play that year. Making a bad situation worse, McDermott on the return to America was rescued at sea when the Kaiser Wilhelm II collided at sea with another vessel.

McDermott – your 1911 and 1912 U.S. Open champion – survived, but it is said that the scare had a lasting effect on him, perhaps contributing to his spending much of his life after the age of 23 in institutions.

All of which is a rather circuitous way of introducing Brooks Koepka, whose spot in the field at the 142nd Open Championship is a tribute to equal parts human spirit, a keen sense of adventure, polished golf skills and basic good luck.

Oh, and patience and perspective helped, too.

“Nothing really added up, but at the end of the day, you just have to show up and play golf,” Koepka said of the events of June 23-24 when he scripted his story of intrigue. “You have to enjoy the experience and when the (Open) Championship is on the line, you find a way.”

In a world that has grown increasingly smaller thanks to modern transportation, it might not seem to be a major challenge to get from Aviemore, Scotland, to Sunningdale Golf Club, just west of London. It’s perhaps a shade over 500 miles and the eight-hour car ride wasn’t needed, for Koepka had a flight arranged after winning his third Challenge Tour event of the season, the Scottish Hydro Challenge in Aviemore.

Only that flight got canceled, and then so did two others. It was on to Plan B – a hired car to take him through the night to Edinburg where he could catch a flight to London. Sound as that alternative was, it hit a snag when the car got a flat tire.

“The guy changed it,” Koepka said, “but if something else went wrong, we were stuck.”

Instead, he made his flight to London, then another hired driver got the 23-year-old American to Sunningdale an hour in front of his tee time. For all he had been through, for all the fears that could have crept into his mind, Koepka remained positive – and his golf showed it. Shooting 69-65 June 24 at an International Final Qualifier, he earned medalist honors and his first berth into golf’s oldest and most flavorful championship.

Now you might think a kid with very little experience in golf’s big leagues – Koepka has played in one PGA Tour tournament, the 2012 U.S. Open (read about that here), and five European Tour stops – would be overwhelmed. Wrong.

“It was no surprise,” he said. “I expected to play well. I didn’t see a reason to not play well.”

That’s confidence born of positive results, because the onetime Florida State standout, has been on an impressive roll since last fall. Granted, his success has come far from the spotlight – the Challenge Tour being the European’s Tour’s answer to the PGA Tour’s Web.com Tour – but if as they say, “you need to learn to win,” then a round of applause for Koepka.

He won a Challenge Tour stop in Spain last October and all he has done for an encore is back it up three times – 2013 wins in Spain, Italy, and Scotland, one of them by the overwhelming total of 10 strokes. It is a performance that not earned him instant promotion onto the European PGA Tour, but has pushed the kid from West Palm Beach, Fla., into view when one expands his or her focus just beyond the top 100 in the Official World Golf Rankings.

Presently, Koepka is at No. 115, massive improvement considering he began the year at 442. Such improvement has opened the door to possible PGA Tour exemptions and the not-out-of-the-question push inside the top 100 to earn a spot in next month’s PGA Championship.

But Koepka refuses to get caught up in all of it. To him, the biggest thing is, he’s made impressive strides from early last fall when he played poorly at the wrong time – failing at qualifying tournaments for both the European and PGA tours. That is where Koepka faced decision-time: Try to chase qualifiers and exemptions for the PGA Tour or Web.com Tour, or take up residence on the Challenge Tour.

Like his good friend Peter Uihlein, Koepka chose to ride the Challenge Tour through outposts such as Ahmedabad, Padova, Lasne, Dritec or the Canary Islands. And just where are they? They’re far from the comforts of West Palm Beach, in a golf world where only the strong survive, one that is readily available for many, though accepted by only a few of them.

“The road isn’t for everyone,” Koepka said of the Challenge Tour, where you pretty much need to finish inside the top five to make money. “It’s worked for me and Peter (Uihlein, who has also earned his way onto the European Tour), but you’ve got to kind of enjoy being alone and being away a little bit.

“At times it gets it gets lonely. But at the same time it’s been nice because all I really have is golf and I can put all my time and energy into playing well.”

He doesn’t deny that it got him down. “I was tired of golf. I really was. It was nine weeks on the road playing every day, almost not being able to get away from golf,” Koepka said. “I was sick of living out of a suitcase.”

The antidote? Encouragement from Uihelin, his roommate in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and Blake Smith, his manager.

“Don’t expect too much of yourself,” is what Koepka said they told him.

Smith said he understood. “It is a tough road,” he said, and he emphasized that Koepka had played in “10 or 11 countries” this year, which began with consecutive tournaments in India, Johannesburg and Kenya. (And to think, there are PGA Tour types who can’t muster the energy to go from Palm Beach Gardens to Doral to Palm Harbor during the spring swing in southern Florida.)

With Uihlein’s and Smith’s encouragement, Koepka re-committed to the Challenge Tour and so on a sun-splashed day at arguably golf’s greatest links, Muirfield, he played alongside Dustin Johnson in a practice game against Rickie Fowler and the esteemed Phil Mickelson.

Pretty heady stuff for a kid who just a few weeks ago was eating minor-league meals. The only thing is, did he realize that practice rounds with Lefty often carry a price tag? In other words, there’d be money on the line?

Koepka smiled. He knew. His partner, Johnson, never misses a chance to go at it with Mickelson, who feels similarly about putting a little pressure on the line during practice sessions. “It was a fun game,” Koepka said.

Holding his own and even impressing Mickelson from time to time (“What a great talent,” he said), Koepka didn’t escape the sharp point of the lefthander’s famed needle. Mickelson kidded Koepka about Florida State, but the youngster showed some game, too. “I threw the Arizona State thing back at him,” he said.

All in all, “I tell you, he’s fun to play with,” Koepka said. “I enjoyed it. There were a few jabs here and there, a little trash-talking. I know he enjoyed it.”

We’ll guess yes, especially because he and Fowler earned a 2-up win over Koepka and Johnson. Disappointing perhaps for Koepka, but the road he has traveled since last October has taught him patience and perspective.

The reward he earned for an extreme travel experience well done still awaits. He’ll go at it for real in Game 4 Thursday morning.

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