Martin Dempster: Europe Koepka’s launchpad to stardom

IT WAS a well-kent face in Scottish golfing circles who can sometimes be a tad cynical that summed it up perfectly.

Brooks Koepka says playing in the rain at Aviemore will stand him in good stead. Picture: Getty

Standing in front of the scoreboard at Spey Valley after carding a six-under-par 65 – his best effort at the Aviemore venue by “a country mile” – Glaswegian Chris Kelly let out an exasparated groan. “I can’t believe this scoring,” he declared as one of the toughest courses in the country was 
almost made to look like a pitch-and-putt layout in the latest staging of the Scottish Hydro Challenge.

Three players, including eventual winner Brooks Koepka from America, now share the new course record of 62, nine-under-par and a hell of an effort round a track that measures more than 7,000 yards and has heather-lined fairways, though, admittedly, it was playing at its easiest last week due to a lack of wind and with greens that weren’t as quick as players in European golf’s 
second tier are used to.

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In the end, Koepka claimed the £30,000 top prize with an 18-under-par total but it’s likely that would have been a few shots lower if the last round hadn’t been played on a miserable, wet day and, in truth, it was only down to a Herculean effort by the greekeeping staff and a band of volunteers that the event’s fifth visit to Speyside was actually decided over 72 holes.

It meant a fraught day for the likes of Sally Stewart, the tournament’s main organiser, ended with the tangible result her meticulous preparation deserved and, from a playing point of view, the Challenge Tour’s annual visit to the home of golf delivered a sharp reminder to aspiring Scottish professionals about the standard required at this level to pick up a cheque, never mind taste success.

Time will tell if it’s fair to use Koepka as a benchmark as the 23-year-old Floridian genuinely looks as though he could be destined for much bigger and better things, having now climbed to 122nd in the world rankings in less than a year as a professional and also secured an instant step up to the European Tour after winning three times this season on the circuit’s breeding ground.

But his attitude is certainly refreshing, having decided to spread his wings in a bid to become a “more well-rounded player” and reckoning he’ll be in a better position than some of his countryman to compete on the global stage in years to come. “I think a lot of Americans get stuck in their own ways and don’t like to leave the country,” observed Koepka, who shares the same management company as Sandy Lyle and Martin Laird and is coached by Claude Harmon, who was based at Kings Acre on the outskirts of Edinburgh during a spell on this side of the Atlantic.

“Coming over here you’re playing in different weather, like today in the rain and wind. When it rains back home there is always lightning so you never have to play in it and it’s almost too easy for the guys back there. The green speeds are all the same, the greens are in perfect condition and every course is so similar. Here you have to deal with a lot more elements. It’s not 30 degrees every time you tee it up.”

At a time when a number of Europe’s top-ranked players are moving to America to compete on the PGA Tour, it’s great to see the likes of Koepka and also compatriot Peter Uihlein, who won the Madeira Island Open on the European Tour earlier in the year yet is now just a spot above his flatmate in the world rankings, coming in the opposite direction in a 
bid to secure a foothold in the professional game.

“It was a big change for me coming over here and I didn’t know what to expect,” added Koepka, who, unlike Uihlen, didn’t set the world alight as an amateur in his college days. “But I’ve learned so much in less than a year – more than I learned in college golf where I thought I learned a lot. It’s been really good as a person, too, as it’s not always about golf.”

While describing himself as “part of that Tiger Woods generation” and also admitting he is a huge Adam Scott admirer – “his golf swing is pretty and I like the way he handles himself” – Koepka’s role model is one of the rising stars of the European game. “I want to do it like Thorbjorn Olesen,” he declared. “He played on the Challenge Tour and learned a lot, got up to the European Tour and, all of a sudden, he’s got into the top 50 in the world. It’s all a process. Everyone wants success now, but you have to look two or five years down the road.”

Of the five others to earn instant promotion off the Challenge Tour, only Edoardo Molinari has kicked on thus far. But, having used a visit to Scotland to show off his talents, it looks as though Koepka is definitely a young man going places in the game. “This is just the beginning,” he declared in the Spey Valley press centre, and after winning yesterday’s Sunningdale Open qualifier he wasted no time in backing that up.

Spey Valley just right for hosting Scottish Open

The clock is counting down to the third and final – for the time being at least – Scottish Open at Castle Stuart and, having been fortunate enough to play there twice in the past fortnight, I can report the Inverness course is not only in superb condition but also looking better than ever due to a clear definition between fairway and rough that only comes through time.

We already know that the event is moving to Royal Aberdeen next year and early indications are that it will signal a significant boost in terms of its corporate appeal.

That would be a significant factor in the event securing an extended stay in the Granite City, especially if Aberdeen Asset Management remain as the title sponsor beyond the current contract.

It has been hinted, however, that the way forward for one of the European Tour’s biggest events is by taking it on a journey to different parts of the country – The Renaissance Club in East Lothian, for example, and perhaps Turnberry

on the west coast – before eventually returning to the Highlands.

If that happens – and it would surely make sense rather than tying it to the one venue, even though that worked well at Loch Lomond – then Macdonald Spey Valley in Aviemore could well be throwing its hat in the ring along with Castle Stuart.

A new £1 million clubhouse, which will take the total spend on the venue to £5 million, is due to open in August and, though content for the moment to host the Scottish Hydro Challenge, bosses there are eyeing other events for a course described by Dave Thomas as “the jewel in my design crown”.

“We’ve talked to the European Tour and there’s nothing to say we couldn’t host the Scottish Open here or even a Seniors Tour event,” admitted Ruaridh Macdonald, the sales and marketing director for Macdonald Hotels.