PGA Championship

PGA Championship’s hidden millennial doesn’t care if you know who he is – until Sunday

Brooks Koepka comes to the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow as the U.S. Open champion but still not as well known as the rest of golf’s millennial crew. He doesn’t care.
Brooks Koepka comes to the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow as the U.S. Open champion but still not as well known as the rest of golf’s millennial crew. He doesn’t care. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Brooks Koepka has a U.S. Open title, an ability to hit a golf ball as far as anyone on Tour ... and little interest in watching the game when he’s away from the course.

Since his dominant victory at Erin Hills, near Milwaukee, in June, Koepka gets recognized more, signs more autographs and poses for more selfies than before his first major victory.

But Koepka still gets lost in the shuffle of golf’s millennial movement that features Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler.

That is just fine with Koepka, the low-key former Florida State star who celebrated his U.S. Open triumph not with a bottle of Moet & Chandon but a 12-pack of Michelob Ultra.

“I just think there’s a group of 10 guys maybe, you go down the list from Jordan, Hideki, Justin Thomas, Rickie. There’s so many guys, so somebody’s going to be forgotten,” Koepka said Wednesday. “I don’t really care. Doesn’t matter to me whether I get all the attention.

“At the end of the day, I’d rather win. And that’s what I’m here to do.”

Here is the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, a course Koepka has never played but should fit his game because of his length.

Koepka, 27, took a more circuitous route to the Tour than most of his contemporaries. Instead of going to qualifying school, Koepka headed to the Challenge Tour, a mini-tour in Europe.

From there he graduated to the European Tour and eventually the PGA, where his only career victory before the U.S. Open at Erin Hills was the 2015 Phoenix Open.

Koepka has saved some of his best golf for the majors.

He finished in a tie for 11th at the Masters and tied for sixth at the British Open at Royal Birkdale. But it was the way he overwhelmed the field at Erin Hills – his 16-under total tied McIlroy’s scoring record in a U.S. Open – that finally put him among golf’s top under-30 golfers.

Koepka concedes it’s hard group to crack “when every week it seems like a 20-something’s winning.”

Not a nobody from nowhere

But it’s not like Koepka came out of nowhere this year.

He had seven top-10 finishes in 2016 and went 3-1 in his first Ryder Cup action. Koepka’s only loss in the Ryder Cup came in a four-ball with Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer and Koepka’s buddy and workout partner in south Florida.

Tour veteran Brandt Snedeker, who withdrew this week with a rib injury, said he could sense at the Ryder Cup that Koepka was on the verge of a major breakthrough.

“I kept telling people last year after the Ryder Cup, when Brooks figures out how good he is, he’s going to be a world beater,” Snedeker said at Erin Hills in June. “He’s starting to figure it out and we’re seeing it. ... And on top of it, he’s a great guy. He’s easy to root for.”

Koepka’s golf roots are more baseball and blue-collar than collared shirts and country clubs.

His great-uncle is Dick Groat, who won two World Series rings and a National League MVP award during his career with the Pirates. Koepka’s first love growing up was baseball, although he gave up the sport before high school.

“Believe it or not, I wasn’t a power hitter in baseball,” said the muscular, 6-foot, 186-pounder. “I couldn’t hit a home run to save my life and I was a sucker for the curveball.”

Still a fan

Koepka might have stuck with both sports. But he worked a part-time job in high school to pay for a car so he and his younger brother Chase, who plays on the Challenge Tour in Europe, could get to golf tournaments.

But Koepka says he’s still a baseball nerd. He’ll sit in his living room and watch nine innings of an Astros game and went to the All-Star Game in Miami with some friends last month.

Koepka, big hitter that he is, liked the power show that Aaron Judge put on.

“Even in batting practice – this is how much of a nerd (Koepka is), we went to batting practice for the All-Star Game – and he’s hitting these pop flies,” he said. “They are covering 330, 340 (feet), and it looks like he’s not even swinging. It’s so impressive.”

That’s a good a description as any for the run Koepka has been on for the past year or so.

Koepka will play the first two rounds at Quail Hollow with the other two majors winners this year – Spieth and Sergio Garcia, who won at Augusta in April for his first career major.

Koepka won’t shy away from the spotlight and his new-found fame – even if he didn’t go out looking for it.

“Nothing’s changed. I hope I haven’t changed. The people around me kind of keep me humble,” he said. “Some of my best friends don’t even know anything golf, could care less. That’s kind of how I like to keep it.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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