SAN MARTIN, Calif. – Brooks Koepka had to have pages added to his passport. He estimates he’s competed in 15 countries this year, traversing the globe as he tries to establish himself as a professional.
He’s back in his home country this week, though, and faring quite well. The 23-year-old Floridian shot 67-64 in the Frys.com Open’s first two rounds to give him a one-shot lead over 2012 runner-up Jason Kokrak after 36 holes.
Koepka, of Wellington, Fla., is taking a unique path for an elite American. He turned pro in June 2012 after an All-American career at Florida State. His management company, Hambric Sports, is well-connected in Europe so he headed across the Atlantic after the U.S. Open with a handful of sponsor exemptions lined up. He won just his eighth start on the Challenge Tour, Europe’s equivalent of the Web.com Tour.
He tried PGA TOUR Q-School in fall 2012, but failed to advance out of second stage at the same site, TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney, Texas, where Spieth also missed. Koepka returned to Europe this year and quickly won three more Challenge Tour titles to earn European Tour status for the remainder of this year and 2014.
He’s competing in his first PGA TOUR event (excluding majors) this week thanks to a sponsor exemption. He’d love to compete on both the PGA and European tours in 2014, and he knows a good week here would help accomplish that goal.
He’s had plenty of unique experiences in his global travels. He played St. Andrews in the European Tour’s Dunhill Links Championship. He’s won in Spain, Italy and Scotland. He ate horse meat in Kazhakstan. Then there was the late-night shuttle ride in Kenya that was supposed to take 15 minutes but turned into a three-hour mystery tour that had him “freaking out,” he said.
Traversing the globe has had plenty of benefits, though.
“Learning how to travel, that was a big thing,” Koepka said. “Week-in and week-out playing, (learning) how to handle yourself, things like that. Not even golf-related, but cultural. Seeing all these different places and things like that. It helps you grow as a person.”
A good finish here would help Koepka attract additional TOUR invitations; he said Thursday he didn’t have any confirmed starts after this week. A top-10 would get him into next week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. Non-members can also earn FedExCup points to qualify for the 2014 Web.com Tour Finals. He’s halfway to a win, which would immediately make him a PGA TOUR member.
“It would be big. Obviously it would be nice to win and get status over here,” Koepka said. “But if you play good, everything kind of takes care of itself.”
Koepka isn’t the only non-member in the Frys.com Open field off to a strong start. Max Homa, the 2013 NCAA individual champion, opened with 69-68 in spite of a self-imposed, one-stroke penalty in the first round after his ball moved at address.
“It’s a little bit of pressure because I know if I play well, things can happen, but it’s also a great opportunity,” said Homa, who played college golf at nearby Cal-Berkeley. Like Koepka, he doesn’t have any confirmed PGA TOUR starts after this week.
Koepka has traveled the European Tour alongside another American, Peter Uihlein, who’s had success in Europe. Uihlein, the 2010 U.S. Amateur champion, earned European Tour membership after winning this year’s Madeira Islands Open. He’s finished second in two of his past three European Tour starts to reach No. 69 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Koepka is ranked 100th.
“The success each of us is having has motivated us to play well,” said Uihlein, who also is roommates with Koepka in Florida. “It’s a friendly rivalry.
“Our ping-pong games get out of control, though.”
The two earned special invitations to the PGA Championship because of their success in Europe. Koepka finished 70th, his first made cut in three major starts, and played with Tiger Woods in the final round.
He could be playing alongside Woods – or at least in the same fields– more often if he continues his good play at CordeValle.