WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In summer 2012, an American father and mother did what American fathers and mothers often do in American summers: They tried to fall asleep while their 22-year-old offspring jetted above the Atlantic toward Europe. Such voyages often brim with the promise of indiscriminate beer and exhilarated 5 a.m. exits from dance warehouses, but in this case, not so.
These parents knew their son was trying a path so unorthodox that it was gutsy, and they knew his brain always seemed laced with something most humans fumble around to attain: clarity.
“You’re always a little nervous as a parent sending your kid overseas,” Bob Koepka said, “but he just wanted a place to play.”
Off went the 22-year-old, unqualified as of yet for the American PGA Tour, armed with a few tournament exemptions his agent secured, organized in mind if not necessarily elsewhere.
“Probably none of his shirts were folded,” his father guessed. “Probably in a pile.”
He would visit a girlfriend. He would begin at a tournament in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Forgive yourself, you busy sports fan, if somehow you find yourself illiterate about one of the tip-top one-man forces to rock American sports in the late 2010s. Through some quirky hash of factors, the general knowledge of Brooks Koepka strains to catch up to the merit of Brooks Koepka.
Excuses do exist. As this week’s 119th U.S. Open approaches within barking distance of the seals off Pebble Beach, Calif., it’s rote by now that Koepka, 29, lacks any iota of the self-promotion chromosome. That’s true even though he’s that rare golfer they could market shirtless, and even though he states his gigantic intentions boldly, if not excitedly. Regardless, he has claimed a preposterous four of the past nine major championships, become the first man to hold back-to-back PGA and U.S. Open titles simultaneously, finished his past five majors 1-T39-1-T2-1, passed Jordan Spieth (three) and Dustin Johnson (one) in major totals to pull even with Rory McIlroy (four), crept one realistic win shy of even Phil Mickelson (five) and zoomed to the No. 1 ranking on Earth.
He belongs in polite general conversation even if polite general conversation hasn’t quite caught up.
“My thoughts are, he just makes it look easy,” said Trey Jones, who coached Koepka at Florida State from 2008 to 2012. “He hits it as straight as Luke Donald and as far as Dustin Johnson. You’re not sitting on the edge of the seat wondering where the ball’s going to go. He doesn’t let you in. He just walks out and wins the golf tournament.”
Then: “It got really exciting in St. Louis [at the 2018 PGA, where Tiger Woods lurked just behind], until Brooks hit a 4-iron 255 yards to 10 feet.”
Those seeking Koepka fluency might need Koepka stories. At 9, in a childhood spent in Palm Beach County, he accompanied his father and younger brother to the Masters and, upon return, insisted upon wearing slacks to play golf that summer because that’s how pros dressed, even as tournament organizers fretted for him in Florida’s sunspot heat.
In middle school, some girls felt puzzled by how he seemed nice but declined party invitations to go practice.
At 13, he told his longtime childhood coach, Warren Bottke, “You know I’m going to play in the Masters,” and the utterance somehow sounded distinctive even to Bottke, by then a world-class teacher who had heard many such vows.
To his father’s recommendation of a Plan B, young Brooks replied, “Dad, if I have a Plan B, it means I’m not going to work hard enough to make Plan A happen.”
What do you do with that?
“I just kind of thought to myself, ‘Hope he makes it,’ ” Bob said.
Koepka remained undeterred by a fate that deters many youths: He seldom won. He didn’t become a ballyhooed college recruit. He did win the state title at 16, but becoming the prep sensation isn’t always preferable. Yet his trip on golf’s slippery ladder arced invariably upward, beginning with ACC freshman of the year honors, not to mention a way with kids reflected in being perennially voted best counselor by tykes at Florida State’s golf camps.
Who’s this Brooks Koepka? He’s a guy who deemed his backpack and suitcase too tightly packed to include his first pro trophy (in Spain), so he left it in the room, prompting his father to call the hotel, then the tournament, then FedEx.
He’s also the guy who, upon his first PGA Tour win in Phoenix in February 2015, said, “You know, I want to be the best player in the world,” and, “I think I’m one of the most mentally strong people that I have ever met.”
“He’s always been very strong-willed,” Bob Koepka said. “He’s a Koepka. We’re stubborn. We all love a challenge. We grew up competing. My brother always says . . . there wasn’t anything we were doing where we weren’t always keeping score.”
Family banter, rich in shade, found a pinnacle at Thanksgiving 2013. Just weeks earlier, Brooks Koepka had blown a four-shot lead with 11 holes left at the PGA Tour event in San Martin, Calif. For a family-dinner game, diners submit written answers to various categories, then everyone must guess who submitted which. For “famous athletes,” among the expected replies of Ali, Jordan and Ruth was the name “Jimmy Walker,” the beneficiary of Brooks’s recent collapse. Younger brother Chase provided the needle.
Random facts, for random U.S. Open conversation: Brooks Koepka is older than Chase by almost four years. Chase plays the Challenge Tour, forcing their father into familiar sleeplessness or phone-checking at lunch for those three-hole updates. His parents, who divorced in the mid-1990s, met in Pennsylvania, from where both hail, then moved to Florida for his mother’s television news-anchor job.
It’s possible to watch a video of Denise Jakows on Christmas Day 1989 and realize she’s carrying a future No. 1 golfer while broadcasting: “Topping the news tonight, Christmas in the Sunshine State feels like the North: The record-shattering cold is putting a huge drain on South Florida’s electrical power supply.” A breast-cancer survivor, Jakows now has a Twitter account that streams with the inconceivable fun: at trophy presentations, in a Masters caddie suit.
Bob Koepka is the grandson of a Pittsburgh steelworker. He’s the son of a man who, among 10 siblings, started work early in life and toiled at Union Carbide and a gas company. He’s also the nephew of Dick Groat, whose contributions to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dreamland of 1960 made him the National League MVP. Bob’s West Virginia childhood as the younger of two sons featured a Carl Yastrzemski glove, Boston Red Sox fandom and ahead-of-his-years pitching skill, which led to a stay at West Virginia Wesleyan as a steely southpaw.
He caught golf-itis largely because Groat owned a Pennsylvania course. In Florida, Bob Koepka’s first swing teacher was his friend Bottke, who in turn became Brooks’s first coach and second father, beginning at 10.
“He was very shy,” Bottke said of the lad. “Very passionate and very into what we talked about. Was a very good listener. You know, at 10 years old, kids are cutting up, doing different things, and he was just dialed in. He was pretty serious, and I was like, ‘Wow, this kid doesn’t even clown around.’ ”
As any worthy Koepka-ologist should know, he also seemed to thrive when cornered.
At that high school state tournament, he responded to a charge from rival Lion Kim by promptly going eagle-birdie-birdie. All the way to the PGA last month, he stood at the No. 14 green amid his own horrifying public slide from a seven-shot lead, heard the New York fans chanting in favor of Johnson, gained mustard from that and blistered a restorative drive on No. 15.
Long since had he solved the destructive flaw of his self-directed, club-banging, bag-kicking temper, partly by running the Florida State stadium stairs at the direction of assistant coach Chris Malloy.
“He worked on it,” Malloy said. “He did it. He did it all. Nobody else deserves credit for it. Everything you see on the golf course is a learned behavior. This is not a natural thing.”
Somehow, he channeled it into a stoicism he calmly declares an on-course asset, a poker face Malloy shows on video to his present-day players at Mississippi. “I can’t be Brooks; that’s not the way I’m wired,” some reply.
“That’s not the way he’s wired, either,” replies Malloy, even while amazed himself.
Said Malloy, “I just think he has an unbelievable knack . . . for simplifying things.”
So after Koepka and his clear mind jetted across to Europe, he made that first cut at Lucerne, and he called his father and said he felt better than his rivals. Then the steps continued upward: four Challenge Tour wins (fall 2012, spring 2013), a European Tour win (Turkey, fall 2014). Missing out on PGA Tour qualifying school in fall 2012 only made him more overlooked, thus more determined. From 2012 to 2014, he played beyond Europe in South Africa, Kenya, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, India, China. He developed the good taste to love Thailand. He thrived with few frills. He toughened further.
His clarity even managed to ward off the obsession that foils many a golfer: He can spot a needed break and take it. “I’ve not touched a club” since the PGA, he said typically at the Canadian Open last week.
Said Jones, “Would you want to be out there tinkering with your golf swing every day, or would you just want to realize you’ve got one?”
Now, seven years after Brooks Koepka first jetted off, Bob Koepka sits in a Duffy’s, the locally popular sports-bar chain. He marvels, “I never saw this,” and, “Sometimes I think I’m dreaming.” When he went the other day to do an estimate for the painting company he owns with his wife, the prospective customer got wowed and dialed up a friend to crow about who was there.
He used to think of golf as something he and his sons might do on weekends someday. Then he wished that maybe Brooks could get a tour card. Now he looks up amid the abundant TVs with their NBA Finals talk and their baseball games, and he spots a clip of his Hall of Fame-bound son walking a fairway with that authentic confidence.
“Mind-boggling,” Dad says.