American Success on the European Tour


Sometimes losing is winning — something Brooks Koepka knows well.

When he failed to make the PGA Tour at qualifying school in 2012, the former Florida State Seminole went to Europe.

There, he achieved his first of four professional wins on the circuit in the Catalonia region of Spain, before graduating to the European Tour, where he won the Turkish Open in 2014. Koepka, 28, completed his postgraduate work in the art of being a global golfer, and joined the PGA Tour full time for the 2014-15 season. His international experience stamped him as the type of worldly player who could win anywhere. At the time, Koepka was the rare young American to play abroad, but to hear him tell it, he’d have it no other way.

“It was the most fun I ever had playing golf,” said Koepka, the current United States Open champion. “We went to places I grew up studying and always wanted to go see.”

Koepka’s younger brother, Chase, is one of seven Americans who will be playing in the European Tour PGA Championship, which begins Thursday at the Wentworth Club’s West Course in Surrey, England, about 30 miles southwest of London.

Koepka has become the official poster boy for Americans starting their careers in Europe much like the international stars Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy before them. So did the World Golf Hall of Famer Ernie Els, a global traveler for most of his career who cut his teeth on the European Tour.

“It’s like boot camp,” Els said. “It teaches you something about yourself, and you can apply that to your golf.”

This year, nine Americans, including Koepka’s younger brother, are members of the European Tour and the Masters champion Patrick Reed is among nine other Americans who have accepted affiliate memberships. And why not? Golf is a global game now. Consider this: Nearly half of the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking are international players and most of them began their careers somewhere other than the United States.

The future stars of American golf have tended to stay at home. But beginning in 2013, the European Tour became a more attractive alternative when the PGA Tour stopped awarding cards via qualifying school to its top circuit and made success on the Tour, its version of Class AAA, as the primary pathway to the PGA Tour.

Peter Uihlein, 28, took the road less to traveled to becoming a rookie on the PGA Tour this season. A former star at Oklahoma State who won the 2010 U.S. Amateur, Uihlein turned pro in 2011 and spent the early part of his career competing on the European Tour. He won the Madeira Islands Open in 2013 and was named the Sir Henry Cotton award winner that year as Europe’s top rookie. He roomed with the elder Koepka, and became a seasoned traveler. But he also realized playing overseas isn’t for everybody.

“You’re not going to have your Chipotle, you’re not going to have to have your Smoothie King, you’re not going to have any of that stuff,” Uihlein said. “I think it really comes down to your sense of adventure.”

In an article that appeared in Golfweek in 2013, Uihlein recounted South African trips cage diving with great white sharks at Mossel Bayand shooting video of lions at Kruger National Park. His also described playing a tournament inside the gates of a palace of the king of Morocco.

“You’re hitting balls literally in his garden,” Uihlein said in the article.

Uihlein grew so comfortable playing overseas that on two occasions he skipped playing in the Tour finals, where, had he finished in the top 25 on the money list based on four qualifying tournaments, he could have graduated to the PGA Tour. But last year, he was competing in Houston when the threat of a storm pushed up tee times on Sunday. After the round, he flew home to Florida, and he realized it was the first time since turning professional that he had slept in his own bed on a Sunday after a tournament.

He decided that this time he would try for a card via the Tour, and he won the first event in the finals to lock up his PGA Tour privileges. At the Wells Fargo Championship in early May, Uihlein shot a career-low 62 en route to finishing tied for fifth place. After the third round, McIlroy, a native of Northern Ireland, commended Uihlein on his unusual path to the PGA Tour.

“It’s probably made him a more well-rounded, better person,” McIlroy said. “But I think if he hadn’t taken the European route or the American route, he still would have gotten to where he wanted to be. He’s a good player.”

When asked whether he would recommend that more Americans follow the unconventional route to the PGA Tour taken by Uihlein and Koepka, McIlroy didn’t mince words.

“Honestly, no,” he said. “I mean, everything’s here, everything’s in America. If you’re good enough, play the for a year, get straight onto the PGA Tour, which is the best tour in the world. I don’t see any reason to do anything else.”

Koepka, whose younger brother has already played in Australia, Hong Kong, Italy, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, South Africa and Spain this season, says it depends on the individual’s makeup.

“There’s a lot of guys that are mentally weak, and couldn’t cut it,” he said. “You’re gone for seven or eight weeks to countries you can’t even order food in. You’re out of your comfort zone the entire time and I don’t think many Americans can do it.”

The latest American to ascend the Official World Golf Ranking via international success is Julian Suri, a 26-year-old Duke graduate who missed his European Tour card by one stroke at a qualifying tournament in 2016. But in doing so, he earned full playing status on the Challenge Tour and set out to follow the trail blazed by Koepka.

Suri improved from No. 1,132 in the world at the start of 2017 and finished the year at a career-best No. 62. (Suri is currently No. 77.) He became the first pro to win on the Challenge and European Tours in the same season, winning in the Czech Republic and Denmark. Suri’s rapid rise helped earn him several sponsor invites to play on the PGA Tour this season, and Suri has made five cuts in seven appearances, including a tie for eighth at the Houston Open.

“He’s the type of kid who could do it,” Uihlein said of Suri. “He’s very confident and believes in his ability.”

All of the Americans who have prospered from developing their games in Europe and using their experience abroad as a steppingstone have shared a sense of wanderlust. Reflecting on misspent days at the beaches of Spain and nights exploring Prague, Suri said, “At times, I have to pinch myself, like this is my job.”

Source : NYtimes