FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
Chase Koepka is at peace with being in brother Brooks' shadow and is slowly carving out a career for himself
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
Rain interrupted the final round of the regular-season finale on the 2018 European Tour at Valderrama in southern Spain. As they often do during such delays, players retreated to the clubhouse to watch TV. Chase Koepka was among them, bottled water in hand. The CJ Cup, a PGA Tour event in South Korea, was on the screen, and Chase’s brother, Brooks, was in the process of finishing off a back-nine 29 to earn his 12th worldwide win. More importantly, by virtue of his victory, Brooks passed Dustin Johnson to become the top-ranked player in the world.
Brooks and Chase were brothers on the opposite end of the golf spectrum. As he waited out the delay, Chase was 181st on the European Tour Order of Merit, 18 holes from losing his playing privileges on the circuit. After Brooks drained a 25-foot eagle putt to put an exclamation point on his win, players filed over to congratulate Chase. It was, in a word, awkward. “I just wanted people to congratulate me for my play once,” he remembers thinking. Months later, despite having full status on the Challenge Tour, he headed home for Florida—homesick, burned out and tired of talking about his brother.
The Koepkas now play for LIV Golf, but this story isn’t so much about the controversial new tour. The story’s focus is golf, but it doesn’t have much to do with birdies or bogeys. It’s a story about a little brother living in the shadow of his big brother and their complicated relationship, along with a father who is caught in the middle. This is a story about a different side of Brooks, always looking out for Chase, even if that meant being hard on him. It is a story about Chase falling out of love with the game, admitting he needed help, and ultimately rekindling his passion for the sport.
Chase and I have been friendly over the past three years. After leaving the Challenge Tour, he often attended PGA Tour Monday qualifiers. He is talkative, open and honest. Sure, there were advantages to being the brother of a four-time major champion, but I respected his grind. I remember a rain delay at the Monday qualifier for the 2021 Byron Nelson. Chase and a bunch of other players were huddled in the cramped restaurant above the clubhouse. Rumors about LIV Golf were running rampant. We talked about the tour and what it would mean, and he trusted me enough to share his thoughts. He was playing poorly before the delay, and many players in his position would have WD’d knowing they had no chance of getting through. When play resumed, Chase got around his back nine in two under, finished even for the day and missed the playoff by five. I was impressed by his professionalism. I talked with Chase in Miami at another Monday qualifier. He had just missed the cut at the Honda Classic after receiving a sponsor’s exemption. He lamented his injuries leading up to the event and was frustrated he couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity. These conversations happen every week at Monday Qs. Chase wasn’t Brooks’ brother there; he was just one of the many aspiring tour professionals grinding away.
By the time Chase signed with LIV Golf last June, we had been communicating much less. But in late October, I sent him a text and asked if he would like to talk. He agreed. I didn’t have anything in particular to speak with him about. We spent more than an hour on the phone, and the conversation veered in a direction I never could have imagined.
As many of our conversations have gone over the years, Chase did most of the talking. I could sense his relief to finally open up about the struggle of living in his brother’s shadow. “I couldn’t find any peace on the golf course,” he said. “The one thing I had loved my entire life, I hated. I just wanted to go home. I didn’t want to play any golf.” He told me he was “massively depressed” as we talked about his struggles on the now DP World Tour while he watched his brother steadily climb the World Ranking.
“I am very proud to be Brooks' brother,” Chase said, “but it hasn’t always been easy.”
So exactly how did the Koepka brothers get to this point in their careers? Bob Koepka, their father, has had a front-row seat.
“When they were young kids, many people would have said Chase was going to be the better player,” Bob says. But he is quick to add that what separated the two was Brooks’ killer instinct, which was on full display when he won four of eight major championships beginning in June 2017. “Whether it was Ping-Pong or golf, if someone told Brooks he couldn’t do it, he would prove them wrong,” Bob adds.
The Koepkas got along as kids, often playing together at Okeeheelee in Palm Beach, Fla. They worked as standard bearers at the Honda Classic, and although they had the typical sibling fights, they stayed close. Brooks, four years older than Chase, headed to Florida State, where he would become a three-time All-American. Chase began his college career in 2012 at South Florida, just as Brooks was setting out on the Challenge Tour, the satellite circuit of the European Tour.
After a career at South Florida that included being named the Big East Player of the Year and setting a program record with four wins, Chase headed for the Challenge Tour in 2016, following Brooks’ career path. (The elder Koepka was now playing on the PGA Tour, and after his win at the 2015 Waste Management Open, he moved to 19th in the world.)
At that point, the relationship between Chase and Brooks consisted of the occasional phone call and text. It wasn’t that they didn’t get along; they were just both busy chasing their dreams. They played together only a few times a year, as they were rarely home at the same time.
Brooks had spent a year and a half on the Challenge Tour, winning three times in 2013 and earning a promotion to the European Tour. Although Chase didn’t win in his first full season on the Challenge Tour, he played well enough to finish eighth on the Order of Merit, securing his European Tour card for the 2018 season.
In just his third start on the European Tour, Chase finished T-7 in the South African Open. He seemed on his way to following his brother’s success. However, that would be his last top 20 of the year. He made just 11 of 28 cuts and lost his card at Valderrama. The burden of being Brooks’ little brother began to weigh on him; he grew tired of the interviews, as everyone seemingly wanted to ask him only about Brooks. One media scrum was especially tough to stomach. It came at the rain-shortened event at Valderrama. “Didn’t they know I was about to lose my card?” says Chase, who made the cut but only finished T-58. Sure enough, he lost his card.
After missing at the second stage of European Q school, Chase returned to the Challenge Tour. He was alone in Europe, homesick, and beginning to hate the game. It showed. After making just two cuts in his first 12 events, he packed his bags for home, leaving behind the opportunity to continue to play on the Challenge Tour but also all of those questions about his big brother. He locked himself in his Florida house, sometimes not leaving for days. The relationship with Brooks was almost non-existent. “It was me pushing him away,” Chase says. “Brooks has always been supportive, but I was just in a bad place.”
For Bob Koepka, it was difficult to watch his son struggle. “I had one kid on the top of the world and one who wasn’t,” he says. “As a father, you want all of your kids to have success.”
Amid the turmoil and even before it, Brooks never stopped looking out for his brother. Shortly after Chase turned pro, Brooks took Chase as his teammate at the two-man 2017 Zurich Classic. There, Bob Koepka sought out the advice of Kelepi Finau, the father of Tony and Gipper. Gipper had also tried to play professionally but never had the success his brother did. In the TPC Avondale clubhouse, the Finaus and the Koepkas discussed a family dynamic only they knew. They discussed how to keep Chase and Gipper motivated despite not having experienced the success of their brothers. That week Brooks and Chase closed with a better-ball 62, finishing T-5. That earned Chase a start the following week at the Wells Fargo Championship, but he missed the cut.
Brooks, who declined an interview request for this story, continued to play in a few events a year that most top players skipped, seemingly to help his brother get exemptions. They teamed up again at the 2019 Zurich, finishing T-22. Then came the darkest of times. Later in 2019, through a relationship the Koepkas had with tournament director Hollis Cavner, Chase was offered a sponsor’s exemption into the 3M Open. It was a chance to have a career-altering week, yet Chase turned down the invitation. He didn’t want to hear the questions about his brother again, but there was more. “I was tired of having people asking how I was doing,” he says.
Bob Koepka says Brooks continued to support Chase, even as he said things that were tough for Chase to hear, including that he needed to work harder. That only drove Chase further away. It got to the point that Chase didn’t want to get out of bed, but he knew something had to change.
“It is really hard to tell your family that you aren’t OK and need help,” Chase says. Slowly he began to dig himself out of the hole. He started to work with Andrew Triana, a life coach, and they focused on getting Chase back to loving golf and being his own person.
Triana and Chase worked on not being afraid of success and focusing on the fact that Chase could play golf for a living without comparing himself to his brother. As Chase got the help he needed, his relationship with Brooks improved.
Chase Koepka was ready to chase the dream again, but like thousands of mini-tour players, he needed a place to play. That’s when he picked up the phone and called Greg Norman. According to Chase and Bob Koepka, Brooks had spoken previously with LIV but broke off talks. Norman gave Chase a spot in the inaugural LIV event in London and, soon after, a two-year contract. Obviously, having the same last name as a former World No. 1 didn’t hurt.
Chase knew that as soon as the news became public that he was signing with LIV, rumors about Brooks would begin in earnest. When he called to tell his brother his big news, the anxiety only escalated. The news was greeted with a laugh on the other end of the line. “I’ll finally have to answer questions about you,” Brooks said. He was still looking out for his kid brother.
On June 4, Brooks married his longtime girlfriend, Jena Sims, in Turks and Caicos. Brooks’ best man? Chase. Five days later, Chase teed it up at the Centurion Club in London. He finished in a five-way tie for 33rd with, among others, Phil Mickelson and Kevin Na.
Later that month, Brooks signed with LIV, reportedly for nine figures. He and Chase were not only playing full-time on the same tour for the first time, they were also teammates on Smash GC. As I talked with Chase, he mentioned how fun it was to play practice rounds with Brooks again, something they hadn’t done regularly since they were kids. Chase repeatedly said he knows how lucky he is to be in this position and to play golf for a living. He acknowledges he wouldn’t be where he is without Brooks, but he rediscovered the desire to carve out a career while enjoying time with his brother, who has always been there for him.
He played in all eight LIV events this year, finishing T-17 in Bedminster, T-9 in Chicago and T-12 in Jeddah. Turns out Brooks Koepka’s little brother can play a little golf himself.
Chase understands the questions about being Brooks’ brother won’t stop. Nor will those about the advantages that come with being Brooks’s brother. He also knows he is his own person and is slowly learning how to measure himself against only himself. Chase has spoken a few times with Matthew Wolff, a fellow LIV golfer who has been open about his mental health struggles. He is happy to have a place to play, he is happy to be Brooks’ brother, but most importantly, he is happy being Chase Koepka.