Athlete roots run deep for new U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka

ERIN, Wis. -- Bob Koepka was crying on the phone, and why the hell not? He was an old college pitcher out of West Virginia Wesleyan, and he had just watched his son throw a perfect game at the U.S. Open.

Coaches had long ago predicted this would happen. Brooks Koepka himself had informed his old man as a middle schooler that he would someday be big stuff on the PGA Tour, and the vision that came to be on Father's Day at Erin Hills buckled the world's proudest dad as he watched from his home in Atlantis, Florida.

"I just hope every father out there gets to experience something like this," Bob Koepka said as he tried and failed to stop the flood of emotions washing over him. "I don't even know what to say. This is the best feeling in the world."

Bob talked to the older of his two boys Sunday morning and advised him to keep hitting greens, to keep doing exactly what he'd done to put himself in contention. Brooks assured his dad that he felt extremely confident in his chances to nail down his first major victory.

"Hey," Bob Koepka told his boy before hanging up, "do me a favor. I need a trophy for Father's Day. Do me a favor and bring one back."

On a windblown Sunday in the heartland, Koepka won that trophy with a devastating 5-under-par 67 that mocked the widespread notion this final round would be anybody's ballgame. He finished 4 strokes clear of the field at 16 under, tying Rory McIlroy's U.S. Open record in relation to par and dominating Erin Hills the way his good friend, Dustin Johnson, was expected to dominate it before DJ missed the cut.

Never has golf's national championship had a more fitting winner. The USGA honored the late, great Arnold Palmer with spectator badges commemorating his epic comeback at the 1960 U.S. Open and with a silhouette of Palmer throwing his visor gracing the flag at the 18th hole. Like Palmer, Koepka pulls up his sleeves, shows off his blacksmith arms and swings his driver as if he's trying to land his ball on the far side of the moon.

Like Palmer, Koepka's rise to greatness can be traced to the western Pennsylvania countryside that so often produces athletes just as tough as its mill workers and coal miners.

Start with a former Pittsburgh Pirates star, a shortstop named Dick Groat. He was Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders before their time. He was a two-time All-American in baseball and basketball at Duke, the third overall pick of the 1952 NBA draft (by the Fort Wayne Pistons) and a two-time World Series champion who won the 1960 National League MVP and batting title for the Pirates. In other words, Groat was one of the most versatile athletes of the 20th century.

More than 50 years ago, Groat also was a businessman who opened Champion Lakes Golf Resort in Bolivar, Pennsylvania, some 18 miles from Palmer's Latrobe Country Club. Groat's nephew, Bob Koepka, did a little bit of everything at Groat's course. Bob gassed up the carts, vacuumed the pro shop, replenished the water stations and even tended bar at night. Bob Koepka also studied the golfers and their swings. He'd taken up the game after college, and if he saw a local make a decent shot out of the rough at the eighth hole, he'd ask the man afterward how he executed it.

And then Bob Koepka would go out to No. 8 and drop down a bunch of balls and practice that same shot. Bob never had a formal lesson, but soon enough he made himself a scratch player who later introduced the game to his sons, Brooks and Chase. The boys became so good so quickly they started advising their father on how to fix all the mechanical flaws in his homemade swing.

Brooks Koepka was a prodigy by the time he hit middle school. He tried out for his high school team as a sixth grader and made it by shooting 41 over nine holes. The much older, much bigger kids who competed against him rarely took him seriously on the first tee. Three or four holes deep into their matches, they found out what the Erin Hills field learned the hard way Sunday.

One day the Koepkas were driving home from a tournament, and young Brooks was feeling pretty good about his place in the universe. "Now that I made the high school golf team," the sixth grader said, "in about four years, I'll drop out of school and turn pro."

Bob immediately pulled over and gave his boy a piece of his mind. "You think you're something, huh?" he asked Brooks. Bob assured him that high school and college would be a part of his future whether he liked it or not.

The elder Koepka delivered some harsh lessons on the golf course, too. One day when Brooks was 12, he birdied the second hole to take a 1-shot lead on his father and headed to his cart with a sweeping look of self-satisfaction on his face. "Don't even go there," Bob told him. "I know exactly what you're thinking. My baseball coach said you shouldn't ever wake a sleeping dog. Don't ever let your opponent see that."

Bob Koepka went on a blistering birdie run that left his son in tears. A month later, for the first time, a stoic Brooks beat his dad over 18 holes. The following year, at 13, Brooks ended his father's streak of five consecutive club championships at Sherbrooke Golf and Country Club in Lake Worth, Florida. Bob wouldn't let Brooks ride in his cart when they were going head-to-head; he wanted it to make it difficult on his son. He wanted Brooks to feel the intensity of true competition. And on that breakthrough day at Sherbrooke, after Brooks landed his final approach safely while holding a 2- or 3-shot lead, Bob walked over to his boy and told him to enjoy his winning walk up to the green.

The father hid tears under his sunglasses. Tears of joy.

All grown up, Brooks Koepka played his college golf at Florida State and developed his game overseas on the Challenge Tour and then the European Tour. His first Challenge Tour victory unfolded in Spain, and Brooks intentionally left the trophy in his hotel room. Bob Koepka paid $325 to have it shipped across the sea, and when he opened the package he realized why his son didn't bring it home. The trophy was plastic, worth about $25, and didn't even have Brooks' name on it. Bob kept it, anyway, because that's what loving fathers do.

"Europe was a big key to Brooks' success," Bob said. "It toughened him up and made him focused. He learned how to play in different countries, in various elements. He won in Scotland in the wind and rain. He became a better player than he would've been by playing in the manicured, perfect conditions here in the States."

Brooks Koepka won the Waste Management Phoenix Open in 2015 and then went 3-1 at the Ryder Cup last fall. Graeme McDowell still called him "the most underrated American player in the world" the other day and predicted that would soon change.

It just did. One shot off Brian Harman's lead, Koepka opened his final round with back-to-back birdies to move in front. A grinder with half of Koepka's talent and athleticism, Harman wobbled with bogeys at Nos. 12 and 13 and then went down for keeps when the eventual champ hit him with birdies at Nos. 14, 15 and 16.

Koepka was a muscular sight in that mint green shirt, and the best athlete in the family reveled in it from start to finish. Groat, who still calls University of Pittsburgh basketball games at age 86, watched from Champion Lakes and recalled the days when young Brooks played at his club. Groat was a friend of Palmer's; they played together in the Bing Crosby Pro-Am, and for a while Arnie held the course record at Groat's place.

"Arnold would've been extremely proud of this young man," Groat said of his great nephew, "just like I am. Brooks could always hit it a mile, and his father is just a special guy. Bobby gave him every opportunity to become what he became today -- the best player in the world."

Bob Koepka taught his sons (Chase is also a pro) they needed to be mentally tough to play golf for a living, as tough as Bob's own parents, Burwell and Mary, a couple from the Pittsburgh area who raised their kids on the value of an honest day's work. Burwell Koepka was one of 10 brothers and sisters, and he was too busy helping his parents pay the bills to attend college. He held down two jobs over his entire life -- as a handyman, and then as a laborer reading charts for a West Virginia gas company.

Nothing was handed to Bob, and so nothing was handed to Brooks.

"But he always believed in himself," Bob said, "no matter what he was doing, and no matter how old he was."

At age 7, after suffering a broken nose and sinus cavity in a car accident, Brooks decided he wanted to spend the family's Father's Day at a miniature golf course.

"He looked like he'd done six rounds with Muhammad Ali," Bob Koepka recalled. "He had two black eyes, a swollen nose, his left eye was almost completely closed it was so swollen, and he beat me by 3 or 4 shots. The guy inside was watching us, and when we were done he looked at Brooks' scorecard. It turned out he broke the course record."

Brooks Koepka only tied the U.S. Open scoring record Sunday, hitting more greens in regulation (86 percent) than anyone in the field. Bob was never sure his kid would make it to the tour, but some instructors and coaches forecasted greatness for Brooks. Bob Toski, for one, saw Brooks at Florida State and decided he was good enough to win majors.

As Bob Koepka watched the prediction come to life, watched his boy walk up 18, he flashed back to that day a 13-year-old Brooks beat him for the club championship. That day he cried behind his sunglasses and told Brooks to enjoy the walk up to the final green.

"I thought it was his when he made his [birdie] putt at 15," Bob said Sunday night by phone. "But when he was walking up 18, that's when it really hit me. As a father, that felt pretty damn good."

Brooks Koepka wasn't about to leave the trophy in his hotel room this time. He took a two-minute pep talk from Johnson on Saturday night, a longer pep talk from his dad Sunday morning, and then played the most stunning golf of his life. His old man wanted this special Father's Day gift badly, and Brooks couldn't let him down.

"I didn't get him a card," he said, "so I really hope this works."

The day Brooks Koepka becomes a father is the day he'll understand just how perfectly this worked.