When standing in a lay-by on the outskirts of Edinburgh in June 2013, Brooks Koepka couldn’t have dreamed that one day he would win the US Open. That is, even if the evidence he produced 24 hours later showed that he had the potential.
Picture the scene. Koepka, a golfer trying to make his name via the Challenge Tour, has just won the Scottish Hydro Challenge in Aviemore. It is his fourth win on that circuit within 10 months, thereby endorsing Koepka’s decision to forge his career in the European Tour’s feeder scene rather than continuing with the comforts of Florida. When he won, he won handsomely.
“In the States sometimes it can almost be too easy,” he told the Guardian four years ago. “The way you travel, the fact you always have perfect weather. It is a little different here.”
Next stop, straight from the Scottish Highlands and after a weather delay, is an Open Championship qualifier at Sunningdale. Koepka’s overnight drive between the venues was hampered by a flat tyre. When watching this 27-year-old canter to victory in the US Open on Sunday, it would have been wise to remember such life experiences. Not only did Koepka make it to Berkshire, he qualified for the Open with rounds of 69 and 65 on the back of just two hours’ sleep.
Koepka is the new American champion who owes so much to Europe. Plus, of course, his own desire to sample fresh experiences. “There’s some pretty crazy stories from that time in Europe,” Koepka says. “Going over to play the Challenge Tour was really, really cool; to get to travel the world at 21 years old, and do what you do for a living is pretty neat. I love travelling. I’ll go anywhere. I think it’s so much fun.
“Some of the places we went to were pretty neat. And to go over there, 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. I built a lot of confidence off that.”
Not that Koepka’s journey always seemed destined for success. When pressed on negative memories, his reply is a surprising one. “There was a low point,” he says. “I called Blake Smith, my manager, I think, right before I won that final Challenge Tour event [in Aviemore] to get to the European Tour.
“I think it was the night of the third round. I called him and I was like, I don’t even want to play. I just want to go home. I was kind of, I don’t want to say homesick, it was just tired of golf. Tired of travelling. I just wanted to be home, even though I think I had the lead at that point and was about to win. For some reason I just wanted to get out and go home. I don’t know why.
“I’ve never felt that way. I don’t even know what was going on. It was one of those things, I think I had played so many weeks in a row, not a day off, it really got to me.”
Whatever advice Smith imparted, it worked. “He was burned out, worn out,” Smith recalls. “It was just so much travel, but we were trying to pump him up and tell him to finish it off. And he did.” The young Koepka was impulsive and routinely bad tempered, which made this managerial intervention so crucial in context of what came next.
Smith wasn’t the only one to have recognised Koepka’s ability instantly. Ricky Elliott, the new US Open champion’s caddie, realised from the moment he met his now long-time boss that the prospect of a special relationship was real. Elliott knows his stuff; he grew up in Portrush alongside Graeme McDowell and turned professional himself before forging a successful caddying career on the PGA Tour. “I knew after two shots alongside him that this guy was going to be really good,” says Elliott. “It was an easy decision for me; I just had to hold onto him.”
The appreciation is mutual and based, it seems, on an ability to focus when absolutely necessary. “Me and Ricky; we’re walking down the fairways in the US Open and I don’t think we talked about golf,” says Koepka. “I don’t think we ever really talked about golf. It’s one of those things until we get to the ball and he says the yardage.
“We were talking about vacations we’ve been on coming up the 18th, I think. We were talking about when we went to Bali last year. We were doing something stupid; coming down 18 that’s what we were talking about.
“You’re out there for, what, five and a half hours, you can’t be focused in for that long, for five and a half hours, I think it’s impossible. So you’ve got to have a little break. When I get back to the ball or kind of stand right next to the bag: ‘OK, let’s get into it, let’s get going, let’s focus on it right now, whatever we’re doing, and get back in the golf mind.’”
By his own admission, Koepka had underachieved in the upper echelons of the game – a Ryder Cup appearance notwithstanding – before Sunday. He had a single PGA Tour win, at Phoenix in 2015, to his name before becoming the seventh straight first-time major winner.
That run leads to a wider debate, regarding whether or not golf will suffer from the lack of dominant figures. “I think it’s a great thing,” says Rickie Fowler, who fell short in pursuit of Koepka. “You saw the leaderboard this weekend and still with a lot of the guys that were on that board at the end, it’s a lot of new blood, young guys. Some of the younger crew is coming in. I’m not saying the older guys are out by any means, but I think we’re making our presence a little bit more known.”
None more so than Koepka, who has gone where Phil Mickelson as yet hasn’t by adding his national Open to his CV. The first prize of £30,000 in Aviemore, and even a flat tire, was a key part of the story. Koepka is $2.1m richer and a major champion.