BROOKS KOEPKA:  AMERICA’S NEWEST CHAMPION GOLFER

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It’s time for golfers to get to know Brooks Koepka, appreciate his golfing greatness, learn how to pronounce his name, and remember how to spell it.  And, it’s also time to discover that Brooks is the by-product of a junior golf program at a public golf course.  Yes, Brooks Koepka — the winner of three majors, including the last two U.S. Opens — honed his driving, chipping, pitching, and putting skills on a county owned public golf course in south Florida – Okeeheelee Golf Course, which is operated by Palm Beach County, in suburban West Palm Beach, Florida.  It was at Okeeheelee, on many days (especially in the summer), that Brooks, 28, spent countless hours as a youngster hitting balls on the driving range, practicing bunker play, stroking putts on the practice putting green, and splitting the fairways with big drives.

Brooks’ memories of mornings, afternoons, and early evenings at the Okeeheelee Golf Course are vivid.

“Growing up at Okeeheelee was a blast!” remembered Brooks.  “We would get dropped off at 7:30 every morning and we would get picked up at dark.  I learned how to play the game there and it will always hold a special place in my heart.”

He was not alone at Okeeheelee.  He was joined by his younger brother, Chase, who is now playing professional golf on the European Tour.  The Koepka brothers are proof positive that junior golf programs actually generate positive results.  In the case of Brooks, those positive results are three major championship titles, starting with his win at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.  For Chase, it’s full-time status on the European Tour.  Both players are expected to get better.

In fact, both Brooks and Chase would like to be playing on the PGA Tour at the same time and become U.S. Ryder Cup teammates on day.  Time will tell.

Brooks’ mother, Denise, recalls her oldest son saying, at age 12, that his career goal was to play and win on the PGA Tour.  And, he has done just that – first appearing in the PGA Tour winner’s circle on February 1, 2015 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

And those who have watched Brooks matriculate as a golfer have vivid memories of his early days on the golf course.

Much of the credit for Brooks’ initial interest in golf must be given to his father, Bob, himself a single handicap golfer.  Bob is the one who first put a club in his son’s hands.

“Brooks hit some of my cut-down clubs from the time he was three until I got him his first junior set of clubs at age seven to play in a tournament at Okeeheelee,” recalled Bob Koepka.  “He liked golf at an early age and from age 7-12, he started showing a passion for the game, especially after I took him to the Masters at age eight.  He played a lot of sports growing up like soccer, roller hockey, basketball and, mostly, baseball, until deciding at 12 he wanted to focus strictly on golf.  I knew he was always a good player, but never once dreamed of him reaching the heights of winning majors and as one of the top golfers in the world!”

Brooks’ high school golf coach, Greg Sherman, is not surprised to see Brooks succeeding on the pro circuit.

“I had the privilege and honor of coaching many fine  golfers and many fine young men during my ten plus years of coaching the golf team at Cardinal Newman High School,” recalled Sherman.  “There were several that stood out as outstanding golfers with PGA Tour potential. I can’t really exactly say why Brooks stood out among them, but he did. However, I did glean Brook’s excellent potential for the PGA Tour and success with it when he played in and won the (Florida) state high school golf championship as an individual in his junior year.  At the awards ceremony, I recall looking at Brooks and thinking this kid could go really far in golf.”

Fellow golf professionals Mary-Lee Cobick and Donna White have strong memories of young Brooks playing and practicing at Okeeheelee.  Both Cobin and White recall Brooks’ unique hunger for the game.

“He had a passion for golf and his work ethic stood out,” recalled White, director of Golf Professional Services, Inc.  “He loved to compete and he played lots of golf at Okeeheelee.  He and his brother would play, play, play all day.  He was always a serious player. With such great facilities at Okeeheelee, Brooks had an advantage over other junior golfers in south Florida.”

“Brooks was the young man you saw arrive first in the morning and was the last to leave at night,” remembered Mary-Lee Cobick, President, Junior Golf Foundation of America, Inc.  “Back then, the county ‘Play Pass’ did not offer range balls so Brooks played and worked on his short game all day long. People talk about his power, but his short game and putting are incredible! He was so competitive and always wanted to ‘play a game’ against anyone and everyone that would be around the clubhouse. All these were short-game related. It always amazes me now to watch him ‘pull off’ all the difficult shots around the green in tournaments in the last final holes.  It’s as if I’m watching him all over again from the Okeeheelee Golf shop window years ago.”

Bob Koepka also taught his two sons that winning at anything doesn’t just happen.  It requires focus and determination.

“I always made the boys figure out how to win at anything and never let them win whether it was playing cards or sports,” added Bob Koepka.  “It was up to them to either physically or mentally rise up to the challenge.”

Brooks has certainly risen to the challenge.  And, he’s still rising.  And, he attributes much of his success to his junior golf experiences in Palm Beach County.

“I can’t say enough about the Junior Golf Foundation of America’s junior golf programs at Okeeheelee,” said Brooks.  “It was on those golf courses and through those tournaments that I fell in love with the game.  I can honestly say that I would not be where I’m at today if those opportunities were not available to me when I was younger.”

In many respects, Bob Koepka has known for a few years that his oldest son has what it takes to win golf tournaments, based on two golf experiences for Brooks a few years ago.

The first significant memory took place in the fall of 2006, during Brooks’ junior year of high school in West Palm Beach, when he was playing in the Florida high school state championship golf tournament.

“I had his high school coach tell him he was four shots back with seven holes to play for the state championship,” recalled Bob Koepka.  “He (Brooks) proceeded to go five under to capture the title.”

The second significant moment took place during a qualifier for the U.S. Amateur.

“During the U.S. Amateur qualifier for Erin Hills (in 2011), Brooks’ brother (Chase) signaled him that he was four shots behind Chase with six to play,” remembered Bob Koepka.  “Brooks finished with five birdies and eagled the first playoff hole to earn his entry to Erin Hills.”  Chase finished as the 2nd alternate.

There is a strong charitable side to Brooks, as well.  When he was recovering from a severe left wrist injury this past spring, which kept him away from the PGA Tour, he made an appearance at Okeeheelee during the club’s 11th Annual Putting Classic as a goodwill gesture to pose for photographs, shake a few hands, and show support for other up-and-coming golfers.  And, he brought along his U.S. Open trophy, too.  Not many U.S. Open champs come back to the grassroots of their greatness, but Brooks did.  And, will probably continue to do so.

“This is the first time that the actual U.S. Open trophy has ever been on display at our golf course,” beamed Mac Hood, golf course manager, Okeeheelee Golf Course.

Moving forward, it’s time to keep an eye on the world rankings and get used to seeing Brooks’ name listed in golf’s global top ten.  Expect him to be there for many years to come, especially if he continues to play like he has since June of this year, when he won his second straight U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and his first Wanamaker Trophy at the PGA Championship in August in St. Louis.  With his win at the 100th PGA Championship, it meant that Brooks has now won three out of the last seven majors that have been played, dating back to the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.  Brooks also became just the fifth golfer to win the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship in the same calendar year.  The other four people on that list include Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, and Gene Sarazen.  That’s exclusive company, to say the least.

Brooks might have actually won the Masters this past April, but he was sidelined due to that aforementioned severe wrist injury.  But, he’ll be at Augusta National in April of 2019, in search of yet another first-place finish in a major.

Brooks’ dad knows that his son is ready to expand his wardrobe with the addition of another jacket, preferably one that is green.

“Brooks is at his best when his back is against the wall and is mentally strong enough to take his game to next level to reach the goal at hand,” stated Bob Koepka.

Sherman agrees that Brooks’ mental strength may be his biggest asset on the course, especially in the final rounds of major championships.

“When I have watched Brooks in person or on TV the past several years, it is clear that Brooks has matured in so many ways with his disposition and coolness in the most competitive situations on the PGA Tour,” added Sherman.  “This was especially clear to me in his final holes in this year’s U.S. Open and in the PGA Championship.”

In the meantime, look for Brooks to play a prominent role for the U.S. team at the Ryder Cup matches in France in late September.  And, expect Brooks to be a regular member of many U.S. President’s Cup and Ryder Cup teams over the next 10-15 years, possibly alongside brother Chase.

As an aside, Brooks’ win at the PGA Championship caused his hometown newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, to post this question – The New Tiger? — at the top of the newspaper on the Monday after his win at the PGA Championship.  Will the New Tiger be called King Koepka?  Only time will tell, but time is on Brooks’ side.

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The author of this story is Mike May, a Wellington, Florida-based golf writer.  More of Mike’s stories can be found on his ever-changing website:  MikeMayMarketing.com.  Mike can be contacted via email at mmaymarketing@gmail.com

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Mike May

Mike May is a freelance golf writer based in Wellington, Florida. Mike, an avid golfer, is also a member of the Golf Writers Association of America. He traces his roots as a golf writer to the 1983 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale -- which he attended for all four days -- and then voluntarily wrote his own account of that major championship event. In addition to being a golf writer, Mike coaches girls high school basketball, officiates high school soccer, and works with a cause (PHIT America) that is focused on bringing daily P.E. back to all U.S. schools. Mike is a 1985 graduate of the University of Florida where he earned a degree in broadcasting. Mike can be reached on email at: mmaymarketing@gmail.com

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