ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Brooks Koepka fulfilled a childhood dream on Sunday morning at the PGA Championship when he got to meet his hero Tiger Woods on the putting green at Oak Hill just before his final round.
Then he got to play golf with him.
As you might expect, Koepka, 23, had a nervous start. He bogeyed his first two holes and made a mess of a few others while shooting a front-nine 43. But he pulled himself together at the turn, made birdie on 11 and 12 and came home in one-under 34 for a 77, seven shots behind his idol. Seventy-seven is the kind of score most pros try to quickly forget, but this round will be a happy memory that Koepka will relive for a long time.
"Obviously I didn't play the way I wanted to, but it was fun. Tiger's a good dude," Koepka said afterward while sounding slightly shell-shocked. "I had a little bit of adrenaline going. The ball wasn't flying the distances I thought it was. I don't know what to say. I hung in there on the back."
Koepka stands 6-foot-1 and is a trim 185 pounds, and he didn't look out of place strolling the fairways next to Woods, a renowned fitness buff. The pair had several chats and seemed to have a good time together. What did they discuss?
"Not really golf. We were just talking about other things. Life, things like that," Koepka said. "I think everybody admired him growing up. He's the reason I'm playing. It's fun to play with him."
Koepka said the scene at the opening hole was particularly awe-inspiring, as thousands of raucous fans packed the stands and lined the fairway to watch the pair's opening shots. "It was unbelievable, people just shouting his name," Koepka said. "It's definitely a little different than the Challenge tour."
That last line explains why today is most likely the first time you've come across the name Brooks Koepka. The Challenge tour is a European minor-league circuit, and this season Koepka has jetted from his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to compete in 10 events. Koepka isn't a big name yet, but he's unquestionably on the rise. He played collegiately at Florida State and was a two-time ACC player of the year. He broke through for his first Challenge tour title last fall, and this season he's won three more times in three countries — Italy, Spain and Scotland — which earned him both a promotion to the European tour and a place in this week's field after the PGA's board selected him for one of the final spots. The decision to go overseas early in his career may be unconventional, but three Ws in his last 10 starts? It's apparently working.
"I wouldn't be standing here without the Challenge tour," he said. "It's just tough going over there and finding places to eat, the language barrier, things like that. It's not for everyone, but it's worked for me. I enjoy it over there."
Koepka lives down the street from Woods, and he has seen the world No. 1 a couple of times while playing on a guest pass at Medalist, where Woods is a member. "Obviously he had no clue who I am," Koepka said with a laugh. But after Sunday's round, it was clear Koepka made an impression on Woods, who's not known for dishing out a lot of compliments for his opponents.
"Really talented, good kid," Woods said. "He's earned his way. Good old-fashioned work pays off, and he should be proud of it." Woods added that he'd look for Koepka at Medalist and perhaps they'd tee it up if Koepka joins the club. Meanwhile, Koepka said he learned a lot from Sunday's experience and is eager to get back in that environment as fast as he can.
"I want to be in that situation. I wanted to play with him," Koepka said. "I thought it would be a good experience. At the same time I wanted to take on the best player in the world. Who doesn't?"
On his final hole, Koepka yanked his approach shot into the gallery left of the green. Woods then stepped in and mis-hit his second on a similar line. The pros waded into the gallery a few feet apart from each other to play tricky flop shots. Koepka hit a beauty to four feet. Woods went next and dropped it even closer. They holed their par putts, shook hands and walked off together. Brooks Koepka looked like he belonged.