US Open 2017

Golf: New US Open champion Koepka took the road much travelled

Brooks Koepka posing with the US Open trophy on Sunday. His 16-under total of 272 tied the tournament record for lowest winning total to par, which was set by Rory McIlroy at Congressional Country Club in 2011.
Brooks Koepka posing with the US Open trophy on Sunday. His 16-under total of 272 tied the tournament record for lowest winning total to par, which was set by Rory McIlroy at Congressional Country Club in 2011.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Koepka's journey to far-flung places unusual in professional golf, but he has no regrets

ERIN (Wisconsin) • Brooks Koepka took an unorthodox path to reaching the goal of all professional golfers on Sunday, but the 27-year-old Floridian said he would not change a thing after claiming his first Major title.

He won the US Open by four shots, closing with a five-under 67 at Erin Hills to triumph with a 16-under total of 272 to tie the tournament record for lowest total under par, which was set by Rory McIlroy at Congressional Country Club in 2011.

Koepka also became the seventh consecutive first-time winner in a men's Major, and he is the youngest of the seven by a few months.

In doing so, he reached the pinnacle of a professional journey that began five years ago on Europe's secondary Challenge Tour. The long-hitting American travelled far and wide, from Kazakhstan to Kenya and mainland Europe, cramming into bed and breakfast rooms with fellow players, spending some nights sleeping in cars, and learning about life and how to win.

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"Going over to play the Challenge Tour was really cool, to get to travel the world at 22 and do what you do for a living is pretty neat," he told reporters with the gleaming silver US Open trophy by his side.

"I think it helped me grow up a little bit and really figure out that, hey, play golf, get it done, and then you can really take this somewhere. And I built a lot of confidence off of that."

Three quick wins in Spain, Italy and Scotland earned him automatic entry to the European Tour, where he won in Turkey in 2014. A tie for fourth at the US Open that same year helped Koepka earn his PGA Tour card.

TRYING TOO HARD TO WIN

I've been trying to win so badly. I felt like I've underachieved. I just felt like I should be winning more. I just couldn't stand the fact that I'd only won once.''

BROOKS KOEPKA, on his frustrations.

He captured the 2015 Phoenix Open but despite often putting himself in contention, the wins did not continue to flow and from 21 top-10 finishes on the US-based tour, he only had the one victory.

"I'd won once on the PGA Tour, once on the European Tour. And I felt like I put myself in contention so many times," he said. "I felt like I just never fully came together."

He said he found himself trying too hard to win.

"I've been trying to win so badly. I felt like I've underachieved," he said. "I just felt like I should be winning more... I just couldn't stand the fact that I'd only won once."

His friends and professional support team preached patience. Guided by power-hitting mentor and friend, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, he dedicated himself to fitness.

"I've worked my tail off over the last six months, made some changes, from grinding every day in the gym, trying to make sure that I was physically ready and strong enough to be able to swing the club the way I wanted to," he said.

This week, he received pep talks from swing coach Claude Harmon III, master short-game coach Pete Cowen and from Johnson, last year's US Open winner.

"Dustin actually called me last night and told me the same thing, 'Just stay patient. Just keep doing what you're doing, you're going to win the thing. Just don't get ahead of yourself'," the laconic Koepka added. "It was a long phone call for us, it was like two minutes."

It all came together this week as his patient globe-trotting apprenticeship finally paid off.

"I look at all these places I won. I just won in Japan in November," he said about the Dunlop Phoenix event. "And to win on the European Tour in Turkey. You look back at all the wins, even on the Challenge Tour. It's pretty cool. I'd love to get a map and just look at all the places I've won. It's pretty cool."

Japan's Hideki Matsuyama produced a late charge for the title, but just came up short to finish second behind Koepka.

Still, he could take some comfort and pride in matching the best finish ever by a Japanese in a men's Major, set by Isao Aoki, runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in the 1980 US Open at Baltusrol.

He also jumped from fourth to a career-high second in the world rankings behind Johnson.

"I played really well today. Came up a little short. No regrets," he told reporters through an interpreter. "If I learnt anything, it's that you've got to put four good rounds together. I played two good rounds. It wasn't enough."

REUTERS, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2017, with the headline 'Champion took road much travelled'. Print Edition | Subscribe