SAN MARTIN, Calif. – Brooks Koepka is comfortable with a lead. His average margin of victory in four wins on Europe’s Challenge Tour is 5.75 strokes, including a 10-shot rout. He’s leading once again, this time on the PGA TOUR.
A third-round 67 at the Frys.com Open gave him a 15-under 198 total (67-64-67), two shots better than George McNeill and Jason Kokrak. Koepka, who’s in the field via a sponsor invitation, is playing his first PGA TOUR event (excluding majors).
“It’s better than being behind” a confident Koepka said about leading. “Two (shots) is better than one.”
The Florida native turned pro in June 2012 and headed to the Challenge Tour, Europe’s version of the Web.com Tour, after receiving several sponsor exemptions. He won in his eighth start, and returned to Europe this year after failing to advance out of the second stage of PGA TOUR Q-school. He quickly won three times on the Challenge Tour to earn European Tour status for the remainder of this year and 2014.
Koepka, 23, said he’d like to gain TOUR status so he can play in both the United States and Europe. He’d earn that with a win Sunday.
Koepka said he didn’t win much as an amateur, but he’s won four times in 20 Challenge Tour starts. He was a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year at Florida State, but never was selected for the Palmer Cup or Walker Cup teams, which are comprised of the nation’s best collegians and amateurs, respectively.
He said those omissions motivated him, though he didn’t perceive them as slights. “Just felt maybe I had to work a little bit harder,” he said. “I had a little something to prove.”
He estimates he’s played in 15 countries this year; his next scheduled start, at the European Tour’s BMW Masters in Shanghai, China, takes him to another new land. He’s won in Scotland, Spain and Italy, beating the field by at least three shots in each of his Challenge Tour wins.
“It’s all about how much pressure you put on yourself,” he said. “Obviously, I think there may be some people who don’t think I can handle it on Sunday just for the fact that I’ve never been sitting in this position.”
McNeill and Koepka are both Florida State alums, as is 2012 Frys.com Open champion Jonas Blixt. McNeill and Koepka have only met briefly; that will change Sunday when they play with Kokrak in the final threesome. Blixt and Koepka occasionally play practice rounds and dine together; they were going to try to meet for dinner Saturday evening, Koepka said.
He started the third round with a one-shot lead and withstood an early challenge from his closest pursuers. Kokrak holed out from 130 yards for eagle on the first hole, but Koepka responded with a 15-foot birdie putt to stay in a share of the lead. “That first hole was interesting,” Koepka said with a smile. The third member of their group, Robert Garrigus, also made birdie. All three birdied the second hole, Koepka doing so with an 18-foot putt.
“I just felt like I was going to make it,” he said. “I felt like that all week. … I just feel real comfortable on these greens. That’s always good, when you’re confident going in to putt.”
He’s fourth in the field in strokes gained-putting (2.28), 14th in greens in regulation (77.8 percent) and 15th in driving distance (305.5 yards). His 21 birdies lead the field.
He’s taken a unique route for an elite American collegian, but is now 100th in the Official World Golf Ranking. A top-10 finish would get him into next week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas. This week’s showing has undoubtedly gotten the attention of tournament directors, and should help him receive additional sponsor exemptions, should he need them.
The goal of any non-member is to pull a “Jordan Spieth.” The 2013 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year’s surname has turned into a verb when Spieth earned TOUR status after starting the season with no status on any tour. Max Homa, the 2013 NCAA individual champion, also is playing the Frys.com Open on a sponsor exemption. Both are playing their first PGA TOUR event (excluding majors). Neither has confirmed starts after this week.
“Jordan is almost one of a kind, "but it's nice to see him do what he did because I've played against him,” said Homa, who played college golf at nearby Cal-Berkeley. "He's obviously an unbelievable talent, but it is nice to see one of my peers do so, so well right away because you just think, 'Why not?'"
Homa is tied for seventh at 10-under 203, five shots behind Koepka. Kokrak, who was second at last year’s Frys.com Open, is seeking his first PGA TOUR victory. McNeill has won twice on TOUR, but neither win qualified him for the Masters. Sunday’s winner will earn an invitation to Augusta National.
“I’m going for the record to win the most times without qualifying (for the Masters),” McNeill joked Saturday.
Koepka, the youngest player in the final threesome, has played in every major except the Masters. That could change after Sunday, though.