Lessons learned before turning pro paved Koepka’s path to PGA Championship

Brooks Koepka poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship golf tournament, Sunday, May 19, 2019, at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y. (Julio Cortez/AP)

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – When Brooks Koepka was grinding on a developmental tour in Europe seven years ago, he called his childhood coach and told him he was going to pack it in. He was going to come home.

Warren Bottke told him to stay out there. He told his longtime pupil he had “it.” There were those dreams as a teenager to try to tee it up in the Masters, remember? Koepka had to finish the race.

He stuck it out. Koepka would win three times on that tour in 2013 after he got mentally re-set. Those wins came by a combined 20 strokes.

The margin of Koepka’s victory at the 101st PGA Championship, which wrapped up Sunday at Bethpage Black, wasn’t quite that robust. It started at seven shots but ended at two after Koepka shot a 4-over-par 74.

But Koepka, now a four-time major champion, was bred for the big stage.

Everyone else who has won four majors is in the World Golf Hall of Fame – save Rory McIlroy – and Bottke told Sportsnet this is just the beginning for his former pupil.

“It’s kind of like coffee. He’s just percolating and he’s about ready to go,” said Bottke.

Despite his only over-par score of the week on a day with tough conditions, Sunday remained a formality for the 29-year-old. Turns out, if he had just shot even-par onwards from Friday – after he shot the course record at Bethpage Black Thursday, a 7-under 63 – he would have still won.

With the win, Koepka defended his PGA Championship title and became the first person in history to ever simultaneously hold two separate back-to-back majors (he also won the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Open).

He didn’t make it easy on himself, going 5-over for his last seven holes. He shut the door with an emotionally charged fist-pump on the 72nd hole, and called this major triumph his most satisfying.

“I know for a fact, that was the most excited I’ve ever been in my life ever there on 18,” he said. “To be standing here today with four majors, it’s mind-blowing.”

Koepka works as hard as a linebacker in the gym and has the mental fortitude of a quarterback – although baseball was his sport growing up.

His great uncle Dick Groat played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning the MVP award in 1960. You’d think Koepka would be more of a football guy, but a car accident when he was seven (and a broken collar bone) forced all contact sports off the table, so he turned to golf at 10.

Koepka’s father, Bob, was a three handicap and got him started in the game. His brother, Chase, plays professional golf as well. They’re a competitive family said Bottke.

After every lesson, for seven years, Bottke kept a 5 x 7 note card of what he and Koepka talked about that day. Bottke kept those little note cards and Koepka recently saw them. He was blown away.

Bottke, who was the second person Koepka hugged after his win after his father, said it was a natural transition for Koepka to take up golf, and specifically under him. The kind of golf swing he teaches is comparable to a baseball swing, just on a different axis.

That swing brought him some local victories as a youngster before he broke out to win an American Junior Golf Association event – basically a major for teenagers – which proved to Koepka he could compete with some of the best up-and-comers in golf.

“That gave him a flicker in his eyes to say, ‘I can stand up with those guys, I belong,’” said Bottke. “At 16 he won the state golf championship in Florida and the rest was history.”

Koepka said seeing Bottke Sunday meant the world to him.

“He’s been a big part of my life and a big part of kind of how I developed in this game and where I am now,” said Koepka. “He’s been like a second dad to me.”

Despite the stutter-step when he first turned professional, Koepka has been on a historical run through the major championships over the last couple of years, winning four of the last eight he’s played.

“It’s been a hell of a run. It’s been fun,” he said. “I’m trying to not let it stop.”

Canadian golf fans can see the Koepka show in person in a few weeks’ time at the RBC Canadian Open when he tees it up alongside Johnson and others, including McIlroy, as he prepares for his title defence at the U.S. Open.

But if you see him that week, at least you know how he got started.

He was always competitive and determined. An accident didn’t derail his desire to make professional sports his reality. A hiccup after college when he was far from home led him to call the only man who had shaped his swing to that point and get a key piece of advice.

And now he’s the best player in the world. A major champion once again, with no sign of slowing down.

“People were starting to say, ‘where did he come from. What’s going on?’” said Bottke. “But now they know he’s the real deal.”

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