Koepka, 29, was born here, in Palm Beach, Fla., but all that self-containment and emotional resilience, the ability to stand up under major championship pressure as if his legs are stone pillars, that was made overseas. He earned his way to the top of the game by scratching out his living in minor events on far-flung continents in his early 20s, playing roughly kempt golf courses from northern Scotland to Kenya, in all kinds of weather. When his American peers were playing on spongy green layouts in gated communities and eating at Chipotle, Koepka was trying to figure out how to order dinner in Kazakhstan. “We had horsemeat,” he recalled.
American golf parents, if you want to build an unprecedentedly hardy and unshakable player, send your kid away. If you want to construct a competitor unintimidated by any opponent or golf course, who treats the steep and forbidding 7,459-yard Bethpage Black and its long fescue like a soft kitten and who can hold on to a seven-stroke lead in the PGA Championship with the jaws of a lion leisurely chewing on prey, send him far, far away. Away from the manicured greens and the Smoothie Kings. To places where there is a little less grooming and a lot more discomfort.
“Going that route, it toughened me,” he has said. “It was a blessing in disguise.”
When Koepka came out of Florida State in 2012, he didn’t have the hot notice of a Jordan Spieth. No one was earmarking him for sponsor’s invitations. Back then, as he has said, “I didn’t have any status.”
That summer, Koepka and Spieth both went through the same PGA Tour Qualifying School event together in Texas. Koepka failed to make it, and so did Spieth, by three strokes. They tied. But Spieth had a fistful of sponsor exemptions to events on the Web.com tour, the American developmental circuit that is the normal path for promising players. He used them to earn his PGA Tour card in three months. It took Koepka three years.
All Koepka had was admission to some events on the European Challenge Tour, the overseas version of the minor league, and a savvy manager in Rocky Hambric, who handles players both in America and abroad. Hambric advised Koepka that playing overseas would be good for him, better than pleading for entry to the Web.com tour — the golf courses would be harder and the travel even harder, but he would get in a lot of rounds and learn how to be a pro. His parents, father Bob Koepka and mother Denise Jakows, agreed.
He played in 15 countries in a single year. He learned that a “bad lie” is not something that happens to your golf ball but rather a cheap hotel bunk. “A good bed, you learn to appreciate that,” he has said. In Kenya, a midnight cab ride that should have taken 20 minutes ended up taking him on a three-hour adventure before he found his way safely to his hotel. On his own for months at a time, he learned that “I don’t mind being alone.”
In Scotland, he had to drive all night to make it to an event, and his car got a flat. By the time he fixed the tire and made it to the course, Sunningdale, he only had time to grab 90 minutes of sleep before teeing off. He learned to deal with all kinds of muddy conditions because there is rarely lightning in Scotland and so the round goes on no matter how hard it pours or blows. It made him “more of a complete player.”
He didn’t have a swing coach holding his hand — he communicated with Claude Harmon III by video and then had to figure things out for himself on the range in Prague or Toulouse. He broke through and won three events in 2013 in Italy, Spain and Scotland to earn playing privileges on the main European Tour in 2014. By the time he made it to the PGA in 2015, he had thoroughly earned his way — and he knew it.
“It toughened him up,” said his father, standing by the Bethpage putting green after his son’s round of 70 in the third round of the PGA. “I think whatever road you take you’ve got to make the best of it, and I think he got to see how there’s no courtesy cars over there, the dining’s not that good, the courses weren’t as nice, the accommodations weren’t as nice. And let’s face it, he was kind of over there by himself. Until he got up to the European Tour, he was looking at the four walls talking to himself, by himself the whole time. So the good part was he had no distractions. He would just stay over there and work on his game.”
It was an unusual path for a young American — a lonely one that only a handful of his countrymen have experienced. But it made for a thoroughly self-reliant player, who is turning into an unassailable champion with a lead. And one who appears to have real staying power.