Before he ever won the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February, loudly announcing his arrival on the PGA Tour, Brooks Koepka had a choice to make. It was the spring of 2012, and he was leaving Florida State, where he’d twice been ACC Player of the Year. He could wait for fall’s PGA Tour Q-School, or he could set out for Europe’s minor-league Challenge Tour and get exemptions right away. Koepka picked the latter—and soon discovered that this meant encounters with lost taxi drivers, epic communication failures, and surprising new foods, including horsemeat in Kazakhstan.
Today Koepka is a Tour winner ready to play in his first Masters, so it all worked out. Although 2012 was turbulent—he won in Spain but flunked Q-School on his return home—the 6-foot, 186-pound bomber kept at it, sharpening his game with matches against peers like Rickie Fowler at Florida’s Medalist GC and the Bear’s Club. Koepka went back to Europe a better player in 2013 and reeled off wins in Italy, Spain and Scotland, earning a call-up to the European Tour. A T4 finish at last year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 punched his ticket to Augusta, and then came a T15 at the PGA Championship at Valhalla. Koepka also won the European Tour’s Turkish Airlines Open in November.
All of which raises the obvious question: Horsemeat in Kazakhstan?
“It tasted like any other meat—I know Americans find that weird, but in Asia it’s not out of the ordinary,” Koepka says. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do—it’s your job.
“Traveling isn’t that big of a deal,” he continues. “Sweden is cool—the girls are good-looking—and Stockholm is beautiful. Switzerland has some incredible views, and you can get or do most anything you can imagine in Dubai.”
Koepka (pronounced “KEP-ka”) is hardly a household name in America, but his coach, Claude Harmon III, says the 24-year-old had impressed Tour insiders well before his 64-66 on Super Bowl weekend for his first PGA Tour win. At the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, Koepka and Peter Uihlein, one of his three roommates in Jupiter, Fla., were playing a practice-round match against Phil Mickelson and Fowler when Koepka hit a shot so good—so “classy,” as Harmon put it—into a stiff breeze on a par 3, that Jim Mackay, Mickelson’s caddie, turned to Harmon and said, “Your boy can play.”
Another match that week saw Koepka and Adam Scott take on Ernie Els and Harris English. On the par-5 fifth hole, Koepka blistered a 5-iron into the wind to reach in two, prompting a wowed Scott to ask Harmon, “Is this kid going to miss a shot today?”
Koepka did succumb to nerves when he met Tiger Woods on the practice green before their final-round pairing at the 2013 PGA Championship. He found himself watching Woods like a moony fan. Nevertheless, Woods saw enough in Koepka’s scratchy 77 to deem him a “really talented, good kid.”
“Kid” now applies more to Koepka’s little brother, Chase, a junior at the University of South Florida and one of America’s top amateurs. Brooks Koepka is playing like a man, supplementing his Dustin Johnson–like length off the tee with a shored-up short game that should prove handy at Augusta.
Like Scott, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and others, Koepka aspires to be a world player and will keep memberships on both the PGA and European tours in 2015. Harmon thinks this will be Koepka’s “breakout season,” which he says would mean, among other things, making the 2015 Presidents Cup team that will travel to South Korea in October. There are no guarantees, except maybe one: His passport is up to date.
PLAYING ROOKIE: Three more first-timers to watch this year
Erik Compton, Age: 35 / Qualified by: Top-4 finish, 2014 U.S. Open
Scouting Report: The two-time heart transplant recipient’s made-for-Hollywood story hits another peak at Augusta National. At press time, Compton ranked 6th on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained Putting.
Seung-yul Noh, Age: 23 / Qualified by: Winning 2014 Zurich Classic of New Orleans
Scouting Report: The youngest winner on Tour last year also has victories on the European, Asian and Web.com tours. He’s consistent tee to green, ranking in the top 40 in driving distance and GIR in 2014.
Brian Harman, Age: 28 / Qualified by: Winning 2014 John Deere Classic
Scouting Report: Harman’s a small guy (5′7″) who largely makes up for a lack of distance with his putter. The local boy, born in Savannah, Ga., was a three-time All-American at the University of Georgia.