x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Koepka on the path less taken after choosing to play in Europe

American thriving after embarking on scenic route rather than staying in United States

Brooks Koepka has taken a different path than most during his professional career, choosing to play in Europe rather than the United States. Warren Little / Getty Images
Brooks Koepka has taken a different path than most during his professional career, choosing to play in Europe rather than the United States. Warren Little / Getty Images

Like a lot of the younger set these days, Brooks Koepka wears a golf cap with a bill that is as big as a front porch, just as flat, and pulled down over his eyes.

Before he did a brief interview after his round on Friday with Sky Sports, the interviewer asked him to push back the cap back on his forehead so that people could get a good look at his face.

That will not be an issue now. There will be no place to hide.

Taking a big leap in a career that has included major hops across the Atlantic Ocean, Koepka will play in the final group of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on Saturday alongside world No 6 Rory McIlroy, who will start the third round with a one-shot lead at 11 under.

Koepka, who turned pro in the summer of 2012, took a decidedly non-traditional route to the European Tour, earning a battlefield promotion last year from the developmental Challenge Tour after recording three victories.

For an American, that represents a significant detour. Still a European rookie, he matched the day’s low round with a seven-under 65 and will be staring across the tee box at former Dubai champion McIlroy, 24, who is actually a year his elder.

Only 23, Koepka turned pro after the 2012 US Open. He has played in 39 professional events in 21 countries on six different tours, including the PGA Tour, where he nearly won an event last autumn outside San Jose, California.

“It’s fun, and I’m loving it,” he said. “Travelling the world as a 23 year old isn’t too bad of a gig.”

Though both players live in the South Florida area, Koepka has only superficially bumped into McIlroy here and there, though the American’s caddie is Northern Irishman Ricky Elliott, an acquaintance of McIlroy, who is also an Ulsterman.

“It will be fun,” Koepka said. “I’ve been seeing [Rory] for years, when I was in college, lighting it up out here.”

That almost makes McIlroy sound old, no?

For a player with so few years as a pro, Koepka has some serious experience already. In fact, his accomplishments have been credited for a two-fold boost in the number of Americans who entered European Tour qualifying school last autumn.

His roommate in Florida, fellow American Peter Uihlein, is also playing in Europe and has already won a tournament, another reason more Americans have looked eastward.

“I think it’s awesome to see guys coming over here,” Koepka said. “I think guys got stuck in the States and forget about coming over here.”

Koepka, who was a top player at Florida State University, contended at the Frys.com Open last autumn. Had he won, he would have had instant tenure on the US tour. But unlike many players, he plans to keep his European card.

“I’m planning on playing over here a long time,” he said. “My ultimate plan is to be able to play both.”

McIlroy, among others, is a double member. However, few players can boast as many passport stamps as Koepka in such a short period of time. Because he did not have status on any of the bigger tours, he played where he could to get a foot in the door before securing his European Tour card last year.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “It’s been fun, though, getting to see the world at 23.”

The 65 represented his lowest round in European Tour play, and it did not take long to determine the reason.

After struggling on the greens last week in Qatar, where he finished 37th, he switched to a different model with a longer shaft and only needed 25 putts.

“Just the putting’s the difference,” Elliott said.

Koepka said he had a hard time reading the greens at Emirates Golf Club in the first round, though he shot 69. That probably should not be a surprise, since most weeks present courses he has seen previously only on television.

That would be the case this week, for certain.

“I remember watching it when I was in the States, a bunch,” he said.

Even so, when Koepka arrived in the UAE a few days before the Abu Dhabi tournament to get acclimated, he was blown away by the Dubai skyline.

“It’s great, it’s crazy,” he said. “The buildings are so tall.”

Given his pairing companion’s accomplishments, the competition is stacked pretty high, too.