How a car crash shaped Brooks Koepka’s road to US Open glory
What do you do when you’ve been in a serious car accident as a child and your doctor advises you to avoid all contact sports?
Pick up a golf club — and in the case of Brooks Koepka go on to become one of the select few players to have won a major.
His name is now etched on the US Open trophy alongside the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, and his winning score to par of 16 under equals the tournament’s all-time record mark set by Rory McIlroy at the par 71 Congressional Country Club in 2011.
But as he walks away from the fairways of Erin Hills $2.1m richer, Koepka’s real reward is arguably of a value that you can’t quite calculate.
“I got into a car accident and couldn’t play baseball, hockey and basketball,” the 27-year-old tells CNN Sport’s Patrick Snell. “We stuck with golf for a little while and it’s panned out.
“I think it was a blessing in disguise.”
The crash left him battered, bruised and looking like he’d done “six rounds with Muhammad Ali.”
But if it knocked him back, Koepka had at least one thing in his favor: some pretty impressive sporting genes.
The Florida native happens to be descended from one of the most versatile American athletes of the 20th century, Dick Groat — a former All-America basketball star, two-time World Series baseball champion and MLB most valuable player.
Not many can boast a great uncle inducted into the college hall of fame for two sports, but then not many have taken such an unusual journey to the top.
Leaving baseball behind him, Koepka took up golf, learning the game under the watchful eye of his father, before embarking on the European Challenger Tour in 2012.
It was an experience that taught him as much about life as it did about the sport, and the young American went as far afield as Kenya and Kazakhstan as he cut his teeth and honed his game.
“I feel like I really grew up going over there,” he says. “Being 21, 22 years old … traveling the world and getting to play golf is pretty neat.
“I learned how to play golf over in Europe; I learned how to manage being on the road.
“Coming out of college it’s a little different: you’ve got to do everything yourself. I don’t want to say I’m a slow learner but it was something that took me a while to actually master.
“Going over there was probably the best thing for my career and, when I look back on it, it’s pretty special.”
Koepka followed his first career title at the Challenge de Catalunya with victories at Italy’s Montecchia Open, the Challenge de España and the Scottish Hydro Challenge.
But before earning a European Tour card in 2013, those high points were punctuated by doubts.
“I have no idea why,” he reflects. “I played six, probably seven weeks in a row … not being home.
“Golf’s my job, it’s not my life. It’s something I’ve enjoyed but I also like to get away from the golf course.
“I wake up in the morning, I go train and I go practice. It’s something I do. You’ve got to have something outside of golf that truly makes you happy.”
Others in his place might have drifted away from the game. What’s more, his mother, Denise, was fighting breast cancer at the time.
But she told him: “You have to be able to give a punch and take a punch, in golf and in life.”
He remembers taking a phone call and receiving the best advice he’s ever got: “Stick it out.”
Such a mindset empowered the young pro, as Koepka went on to qualify for the 2013 Open Championship in Muirfield, finish a highly respectable fourth at the 2014 US Open in Pinehurst and secure his first PGA title at the 2015 Phoenix Open in Arizona.
It has all led to this.
Koepka, a close friend and training partner of Dustin Johnson, received a phone call from the world No. 1 late Saturday night, who urged him “stay patient.”
Johnson might be a man of few words — with this year’s champion joking the resultant two-minute conversation was among the longest they’d ever had — but the advice has paid off.
“This week I never got nervous,” says Koepka. “I was always very confident, very in control of my game [and] in control of the way I was thinking.
“You know, walking up to the golf ball, I felt like every shot I was going to hit was going to be really good. Every putt I felt was going to go in.”
Koepka hit 88% of fairways and 86% of greens in regulation during his four days at Erin Hills — “pretty sensational in a US Open” in the words of Jack Nicklaus.
Having started the final day one shot back from the lead, the big-hitting American mastered buffeting winds to card six birdies and a single bogey for a five-under 67, finishing four shots clear of Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and compatriot Brian Harman.
After often commenting he feels like “an underachiever,” Koepka climbs from 22nd to the top 10 in the PGA rankings.
“It’s unbelievable,” he says. “To get my name on the trophy with the greatest players to ever player this game … it’s special.
Koepka’s mother beat cancer in 2012 and was watching on at home as her son captured his first ever major — ironically the first ever his parents had not attended in person.
While Koepka jokes his victory will “hopefully make up for” the Father’s Day card he didn’t get his dad, there’s no doubt in his mind there will be opportunities for further celebrations.
“I feel like I can go a long way,” he says. “I’ve got high expectations for myself and, right now, I feel like I can do anything.”