Kiradech Aphibarnrat is no short hitter on the European Tour, but the Thai pro could not help but constantly gaze in awe during the opening round of the 2013 Omega European Masters.
One of his playing partners would stand on the tee and launch drive after drive through the Swiss mountain air, his ball taking a different trajectory than his peers’ before descending onto the turf of Golf Club Crans-sur-Sierre.
“All I could tell my caddie was, ‘This guy’s going to be good someday,’ ” Aphibarnrat recalled two weeks ago. “The way he hit it, he had no fear. He was just bombing every single shot. Just going for the greens, going for the pins.”
The player: Brooks Koepka.
With his triumph at last month’s P.G.A. Championship, Koepka, a Florida native, now owns four major titles in the past 24 months. This week at Pebble Beach, he will seek to join Willie Anderson as just the second man to win three consecutive United States Open crowns. Anderson won from 1903 to 1905.
“I always thought he was pretty good,” said Danny Willett, a former Masters champion, “but what he’s done in the last 18 months is nothing short of remarkable.”
Willett and Aphibarnrat are among several dozen European Tour pros introduced to Koepka in 2013 and 2014 as he took the less conventional path to golf’s biggest stage — a recent American collegian rising through the European ranks after his career stalled.
Koepka failed to advance in the Web.com Tour, the developmental arm for the PGA Tour. So he started to play in Europe after Rocky Hambric, whose agency manages Koepka, suggested playing overseas in the Challenge Tour — Europe’s developmental counterpart.
Koepka has called his three years on the European circuit “the coolest experience of my life.”
“The camaraderie over here is a bit different,” he told reporters in Abu Dhabi in January. “I like it more, personally, than I do in the States.”
Koepka notched his first professional victory in Spain in 2012. When the 2013 season started, he needed just 10 Challenge Tour starts to win three times and earn a promotion to the European Tour.
The European Masters seems to be where his new peers really began to take notice.
“You couldn’t have known he’d be this good so quickly,” said Joost Luiten, a Belgian pro. “We all knew he was a good player, but what he’s done is all up to him.
“It was always mind-blowing when he hit the drive — how can he hit it so long?” Luiten said.
Though they had crossed paths during their junior days, Aphibarnrat said he witnessed a different Koepka at the European Masters.
“He didn’t win at the end of the week,” Aphibarnrat said, “but you could see straightaway that this guy is going to be good one day.”
Koepka tied for seventh that week. It took just one more start to crack the world’s top 100, rising to No. 98 with a share of 22nd at the KLM Open.
Koepka’s lone European Tour win came at the 2014 Turkish Airlines Open, shooting 65 on the final day to overtake Wade Ormsby and Ian Poulter. Willett, who tied for fourth, was paired with Koepka on the final day.
“He just handled himself real well,” Willett said. “Again, a big golf course kind of suited him.”
He started playing in the United States in 2013, and in 2015 in Phoenix, Koepka had his first PGA Tour win, effectively ending his full-time European Tour days.
And yet, Willett noted, Koepka still has a tendency to be overlooked. He recalled a locker room conversation two weeks after the P.G.A. Championship in which fellow pros were discussing their favorites for Pebble Beach.
“They were talking about Rory [McIlroy], talking about D.J. [Dustin Johnson],” Willett said. “It’s two weeks after he won!
“I think it fuels him a bit,” Willett continued. “He’s still good friends with all the guys, but I think it’s just human nature when people overlook him for some unknown reason. He’s world No. 1, and he’s won four of his last seven majors.”
There is no question that the days in Europe helped fortify Koepka’s resolve.
“I’m just hoping that at some point he doesn’t quite play as well so we can all have a chance at winning one,” Willett said. “That would be nice.”
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