HOYLAKE, England — Most stars you see coming. Rory McIlroy was on our radar when he was a 16-year-old with curly brown hair cascading over his ears. Jordan Spieth was making cuts in PGA Tour events when his classmates were still toilet-papering their neighbors’ trees. Lydia Ko, a three-time LPGA winner at 17, seems like an old soul because she’s been a world-beater for years.
But don’t tell me you saw Brooks Koepka coming.
Koepka, if you need reminding — and you do need reminding — is the 24-year-old pro who had golf fans going “Who he?” when he finished fourth a month ago at the U.S. Open. His surname, and the fact that he plays on the European Tour, had most observers guessing that he was a journeyman pro from the Czech Republic.
But Thursday, in the first round of the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, Koepka picked up where he left off at Pinehurst No. 2, shooting a 4-under-par 68, two strokes off McIlroy’s pace. Afterward, Koepka said, “—————.”
Well, I’m assuming that he said something. Fact is, the R&A failed to interview Koepka after he signed his card, mistaking him for a caddie or an equipment rep. (Insert Rodney Dangerfield joke here.) The fact that Koepka’s name was atop the leaderboard counted for nothing.
Here’s where I fill you in. Koepka is an American. He was born in Wellington, Fla., a golf-and-polo suburb of West Palm Beach. He was a three-time All-American at Florida State University and was twice named ACC Player of the Year — which suggests that we should have seen him coming — but, you know, who watches college golf?
Having failed to get through the second stage of the 2012 PGA Tour Qualifying School, Koepka shunned the mini-tours and chose instead to play on the Challenge Tour, the European tour’s development circuit. He promptly developed. He won the 2012 Challenge de Catalunya and reeled off three more victories in 2013, earning a so-called “battlefield promotion” to the European tour. Solid in all parts of his game, Koepka gained a reputation for pedal-to-the-metal scoring, going 23-under-par to win the Montechia Golf Open by seven and setting tournament records for low score (24-under) and margin of victory (10) at the Fred Olsen Challenge de Espana.
After the Montechia win, Koepka had to explain why he was playing in Europe’s minor leagues when he clearly possessed PGA Tour-level skills. “I wanted to become a well-rounded player,” he said, tacitly acknowledging the Challenge tour’s stingy purses, poorly conditioned courses and nightmarish weather. “I believed coming over here would help me be a more well-rounded player and be more able to compete in Open Championships.”
Hear that? Koepka was not just thinking ahead, he was thinking big. Last year he told a Golf Digest reporter that his goal was to be “the top player in the world,” adding, “I don’t think anybody wants to be mediocre.”
Some people aspire to be mediocre, but you got his point.
Anyway, Brooks Koepka, having achieved temporary PGA Tour membership status thanks to his U.S. Open finish, will play in the U.S. next season. And if he can post a few more good scores this weekend, he might even get the world to sit up and take notice. Says Koepka, “————————.”
Stardom beckons. Or, in Koepka’s case, sneaks up upon.