U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka’s ties to Western Pennsylvania run deep
If there was any question about how well Brooks Koepka would handle the spacious, 7,800-yard U.S. Open golf course at Erin Hills, Dick Groat had the answer.
“He embarrassed me, even when he was a little kid,” Groat said.
Koepka, who won the U.S. Open on Sunday with a record-tying score of 16-under-par, played several rounds at Groat’s Champion Lakes Golf Course in Ligonier when he was learning the game as a youngster.
Koepka’s late grandmother, Mary Margaret Koepka, is Groat’s older sister. Her son, Bob — Brooks’ father and Groat’s nephew — was born on Ellis Street in Wilkinsburg and also lived in Bridgeport, W.Va., Ligonier and Johnstown.
Groat played shortstop for the Pirates and guard in the NBA after twice earning basketball All-American honors at Duke. But after a four-stroke Open victory pushed Koepka to fifth on this year’s PGA money list ($4,464,771), he might challenge Uncle Dick as the family’s most famous athlete.
Groat watched the U.S. Open on TV, spending Father’s Day nervously watching his great-nephew win his first major championship.
Bob Koepka, who lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., spent many summer months in Ligonier, playing Champion Lakes.
“I learned the game because of Dick,” said Bob Koepka, who entered Brooks in a tournament when he was 7 (he finished third). “It became my hobby and my passion, and when my kids were born, they would watch me play.”
Brooks also played baseball while growing up, rushing from the diamond after a morning game so he wouldn’t be late for his afternoon tee time.
“If I could do it over again, I’d play baseball — 100 percent, no doubt,” Brooks said in a 2015 interview with Golf Digest. “Could never hit a home run as a kid. Maybe I was too small, but it drove me nuts. I kind of wish I’d stuck with it.”
There were more leisurely moments when the family visited the Groats in Ligonier. In fact, after Brooks’ victory at Erin Hills, Bob pulled out an old photograph of his son, who was 6 at the time, and his younger brother Chase, who plays on the Challenge Tour in Europe. In the photo, the boys are standing on a cart path looking down at the No. 11 fairway at Champion Lakes.
Bob said Brooks once shot 68 at Champion Lakes and nearly hit the 538-yard No. 18 green in two shots, rolling it off the back.
After Koepka’s third consecutive birdie on the back nine built a comfortable lead Sunday at Erin Hills, Groat said he relaxed.
“He got better once he got the lead,” Groat said. “I said, ‘He has it won now.’ He played with extreme confidence.”
Groat said he remembers Koepka as a teenager displaying “tremendous poise” on the golf course. Strength, too.
“He’s always been able to hit the ball a mile,” Groat said.
The Koepka family has roots in Trafford — “(Brooks’) great uncle was one of my (basketball) coaches at Swissvale High School,” Groat said — so Brooks tries to stay in touch with Uncle Dick, a radio analyst for Pitt basketball. Last year, Brooks, who played at Florida State, stopped by to say hello when Pitt was playing in Tallahassee.
After the victory, Bob Koepka said he heard from several family members from Wilkinsburg and Trafford. He answered so many interview requests Monday that he reluctantly begged off a tournament he was helping organize in West Palm Beach.
“They told me to do what I had to do,” he said.
Bob’s only regret is that his father, Burwell, and mother, Mary Margaret, who are deceased, couldn’t be part of the celebration.
“But they were guiding him in Sunday,” he said.