BROOKS Koepka – remember the name because he’s a star in the making in world golf – secured instant promotion to the European Tour after completing a hat-trick of wins on the second-tier circuit this season by landing the £190,000 Scottish Hydro Challenge at the end of a stop-start day in rain-sodden Aviemore.
Six off the pace at halfway and one behind the joint-leaders – Englishman Steven Tiley and Korean Byeong-hun An overnight – the 23-year-old American feared his bid to follow up runaway wins in Italy and the Canary Isles was going to be foiled by bad weather at Spey Valley.
After the start of the final round on Speyside had been delayed by just over two hours, play was then suspended following just 50 minutes for around the same period of time due to a torrential downpour around lunchtime.
Playing in the last group, Koepka had originally been due to tee-off at 9.40am but didn’t set out until the restart at 1.50pm, though he wasted no time showing he had been totally unaffected by the delay.
Showing exactly why he has set tongues wagging among his Challenge Tour counterparts this season, the Floridian quickly surged to the top of the leaderboard with four birdies in his first six holes and, despite seeing a four-shot lead at the turn trimmed to a shot at one stage, it soon became apparent that only the weather might beat him.
As the rain continued to fall, the threat of the final round having to be abandoned hung over the event throughout the afternoon, a scenario that would have proved hugely frustrating for Koepka as the last-day scoring would have been scrapped to leave Tiley and An facing a play-off for the £30,000 top prize.
But, while last year’s event in the Highlands had to be decided that way after the weather intervened, the splendid efforts of Murray Urquhart, Spey Valley’s director of golf, and his hard-working staff were rewarded on this occasion. A closing 68 for an 18-under-par aggregate of 266 secured a three-shot victory for Koepka, who has risen to 153rd in the world rankings after just 11 months in the professional ranks and is the sixth player – the list also includes Edoardo Molinari – to earn an instant step up to the European Tour.
The latest graduate has achieved the feat earlier in the season than any of the others, though Swede Kristoffer Broberg achieved his hat-trick last season in just five events.
But, after playing eight tournaments in the last nine weeks, Koepka is heading home for a break instead of playing in this week’s Irish Open, though he could be back in the Highlands in a fortnight’s time for the Scottish Open.
“This is just the beginning – I know that sounds cocky but I have high expectations of myself,” said the winner before figuring out how he was going to get down to London last night in order to play in today’s Open European International Final Qualifier at Sunningdale, where he is due to tee off in the first of two rounds just after 10am.
Not since Martin Kaymer underlined his major-winning potential in 2006 with a brace of victories has a player announced his arrival on the Challenge Tour in the way Koepka has.
He started to raise eyebrows when landing a first success in Spain last September in only his eighth start on the circuit, where his two victories before this one in the current campaign were secured with aggregates of 23 and 24-under and a combined margin of 17 shots. According to Raymond Russell, a former European Tour winner who has played with the likes of two-time major winner Greg Norman, Koepka is the best golfer he has ever clapped eyes on, a sentiment shared by most of his current Challenge Tour counterparts.
While Koepka’s name looked destined for the main trophy from the minute he hit the front – perhaps even as early as Saturday when he made his move with a course record-equalling 62 – the battle to finish as the leading Scot went right to the wire.
In the end, that honour went to local man Duncan Stewart, the 29-year-old from Grantown-on-Spey holing a 20-foot birdie putt on the last green for a 72 to finish on 12-under, pipping Jack Doherty (73) by a single shot with Chris Kelly (70) and Greig Hutcheon (73) both a further stroke back.
“I wasn’t aware there was a trophy for the leading Scot but I’m absolutely delighted to win it,” said Stewart as he savoured finishing joint-sixth in his home event – the best result of his rookie campaign on the circuit. Getting a finish over 72 holes was verging on a miracle. “To all the greenkeepers and volunteers, a massive thank-you – we couldn’t have done it without your help,” declared tournament director Kevin Feeney after Koepka had signed off in style with a closing birdie to finish ahead of a group that included Tiley, An and defending champion Sam Walker.