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Koepka, Spieth arrive at big moment after rough start

May 10, 2019
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FILE - In this Wednesday, March 13, 2019, file photo, Jordan Spieth walks down the 15th fairway during a practice round of The Players Championship golf tournament, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. The PGA Championship is set to begin May 16 on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on New York's Long Island. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth have a shot at their own slice of history at the PGA Championship.

That might have looked like a long shot considering how they started their careers.

Go back seven years to find Koepka and Spieth near the end of their NCAA days — Koepka a senior at Florida State, Spieth a freshman at Texas — and then meeting again at the end of 2012 on the same course in the second stage of Q-school for the PGA Tour, both finishing with the same score.

Both failed to advance.

“I missed out on second stage and then had to write two essays for final exams so I could drop out of school,” Spieth said. “It was a weird time in my life.”

They turned pro with no status on a PGA Tour circuit, and both went very different directions from there.

Spieth received PGA Tour exemptions, including one that quickly sent him on his way to immediate stardom. Koepka had nowhere to go but the remote corners of the golfing world on the Challenge Tour, with no regrets how it turned out.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he says.

And here they are, among the biggest names in golf, even though Koepka’s game is in better shape at the moment.

Spieth, winless since the 2017 British Open, gets his third crack at the career Grand Slam earlier than usual this time because of the PGA Championship moving to May. Bethpage Black is his next opportunity to join the most elite group in golf. Only five players have won all four majors, most recently Tiger Woods in 2000.

Koepka is the defending PGA champion and will have a chance to join some rare company, too.

Woods is the only player to have won the PGA Championship in consecutive years since it switched to stroke play in 1958 (he did it twice). And because of the move to late spring, Koepka can become the first player to hold back-to-back titles in two majors at the same time: Koepka has won the last two U.S. Open titles.

Both have won three majors. Both have been No. 1 in the world.

That’s about all they have in common.

Spieth was a freshman at Texas — he stayed only three semesters — when he first recalls competing with Koepka in the NCAA regionals in the spring of 2012. They were paired in the second round. Both teams advanced to the NCAAs at Riviera, where Florida State lost a playoff for the final spot in match play. Texas wound up beating Alabama for the championship.

“When he came to college, everyone knew who he was,” Koepka said. “And from then on, it was pretty obvious what he was going to do.”

After the NCAAs, both qualified for the U.S. Open that summer at Olympic Club. Koepka missed the cut, while Spieth shot 69-70 on the weekend to finish low amateur. Koepka did not like the idea of spending his summer at Monday qualifying, so he headed off to the Challenge Tour where he could try to play 72-hole events. He went to five European countries in five weeks, returned a month later to Kazakhstan, and won in his eighth start in Spain.

But the goal was America, so he came back to Q-school and shot 8-under 280 on the TPC Craig Ranch at Dallas. That was the same score as Spieth, who planned to turn pro, but not like this.

“I think I hit 65 greens in regulation,” Spieth said. “And I couldn’t putt it in the ocean.”

As for those exams? Spieth, even though he was leaving college, had to pass his classes at Texas so the golf team wouldn’t lose a scholarship. With his amateur career and name recognition, he could at least count on a few exemptions.

Spieth, who was 16 when it tied for 16th in the Byron Nelson Championship, made five cuts in the eight PGA Tour events he played.

“He was the big name,” Koepka said. “I wasn’t the big name. I wasn’t going to get the starts. They’re hard to come by, and he’s already played a PGA Tour event. Everyone knew who he was and there was a lot of hype around him. We all thought he was going to do what he did.”

It wasn’t handed to him. Spieth began 2013 by trying to qualify for the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines, only to learn he had to pre-qualify. He showed up at El Camino Country Club on a chilly morning in January.

“I asked where the driving range was and it was across the street, using mats that felt like bricks,” he said.

He made it through pre-qualifying and wound up getting into Torrey on a sponsor exemption, missing the cut. Two weeks later, he tied for 22nd at Pebble Beach, and then it was off to South America for a promising start on the Web.com Tour: a tie for seventh in Panama, a tie for fourth in Colombia. He was certain to get full status. The idea was to finish in the top 25 on the money list to get a PGA Tour card.

The decision was whether to go to Chile and nail down his status or honor a commitment to play in the Puerto Rico Open.

“If I was smart, I would have gone to Chile,” he said.

But his girlfriend, family and their friends had planned to watch him in Puerto Rico, and Spieth had already accepted the exemption. That changed his career. He was runner-up by one shot, and the $308,000 he made went a long way toward earning his card that year.

The rest was vintage Spieth. He chipped in for birdie on the 71st hole at Innisbrook to secure special temporary membership. He holed a bunker shot on the final hole of the John Deere Classic and then won a playoff. He shot 62 in the final round at the TPC Boston and was picked for the Presidents Cup.

Koepka was on a different kind of fast track. He won three more Challenge Tour events that year to get his European Tour card, played in two majors, and received his first sponsor exemption to a PGA Tour event at the Frys.com Open, where tournament president Duke Butler always had an eye for young talent.

Koepka delivered. He had a two-shot lead going into the final round until Jimmy Walker passed him down the stretch. A year later, he capped off his European Tour rookie season by winning in Turkey. The next year, he won the Phoenix Open. And then came a Ryder Cup debut, and three majors.

They got to Dallas again, this time at the AT&T Byron Nelson, with one eye on the PGA Championship next week and what they could achieve.

It’s probably more than what they imagined when they began.

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