PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | While all the biggest names show up annually at Arnie’s Bay Hill Club or World Golf Championship events, every now and then the bigger story plays out in what are commonly called “opposite events.” One such story was scripted last week in Puerto Rico by Ryan Brehm.
Brehm is a 35-year-old, 6-foot 4-inch chunk of a golfer from Michigan. He looks more like a guy who would have thrown heat out of the bullpen or set a pick as a power forward for Michigan State rather than lead the Spartans to three Big Ten golf championships. Twice he has collected a PGA Tour card and failed to retain it.
“I would say it’s probably harder to keep it than get it,” Brehm said.
Because Brehm tested positive for COVID-19 last April before he could team up with Joel Dahmen in the Zurich Classic, he was granted one PGA Tour start this season on a minor medical extension. Wherever he chose to play, the stakes were simple: basically, win or go Korn Ferry. A solo second would retain some conditional status, but only a victory would get full privileges.
“You know, the story is you only had one chance and it’s the ultimate clutch performance. But for me it felt like there was no pressure because it was win or go home.” – Ryan Brehm
As fellow Michigander Eminem would say, if you only got one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted … would you capture it or just let it slip?
Ryan and his wife, Chelsey, chose the Puerto Rico Open, where she caddied for him. It was a calculated choice – a course where he had finished 11th last year in a spot on the schedule where he’d made enough Korn Ferry Tour starts to be in form.
They did not let their one moment slip.
“I’m 35 years old, I’ve been playing for a really long time and I have enough experience to understand that you really had to have the mental discipline to focus on the task at hand,” Brehm said. “But sometimes that’s not enough. You know, you need to have your skills sharp; you need to be game ready. So I think just with the experience that we had … we did a good job scheduling early; we did a good job of really understanding what we needed to get out of our game for that week.”
The Brehms reached Sunday with a three-shot lead, the kind of cushion that can vanish in a flash considering all the pressure on his broad shoulders. Ryan never flinched, posting a flawless bogey-free 67 to win by six shots.
“You know, the story is you only had one chance and it’s the ultimate clutch performance,” he said. “But for me it felt like there was no pressure because it was win or go home. And we had already resigned to the fact that we’re gonna play a full season on the Korn Ferry regardless.”
With that, Brehm sensed he was in command all day. He didn’t need to leaderboard-watch. He knew he was in full control of his destiny.
“I just had a feeling that I had a big lead,” he said. “I looked after the par-5 15th and saw, I think it was seven shots. … You still do the math, which could be unique to golf. You just have so much time to think about what can go wrong.
“Ironically, I wouldn’t say that this is as good as I feel about my game. However, I think that was the best I’ve played last week. I wouldn’t say that I struck it better than ever or feel like I have complete control better than ever. But when it came to executing, I did that better than I’ve ever done for 72 holes blocking off the noise. So it kind of pointed me in the direction of believing that maybe there’s a little more to this than just making great golf swings.
“Early in the year I had put myself in position a couple of times on the Korn Ferry Tour and just completely melted down mentally. I think from those situations, I just learned that in order to have success at the end of the day, you really have to commit to blocking that out and putting your head down and just focusing on what’s gonna lead you to success. And for me that is getting into the fairway, hitting it on the green, making the putt and going to the next.”
Brehm wasn’t alone in his confidence last week. His management team already committed him to play in this week’s Players Championship, which he could reach only by winning last week. “Somebody believed in me,” he said.
Brehm, however, could not have imagined he’d be at TPC Sawgrass playing for a $20 million purse and receiving the traditional cuff links presented to Players rookies by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. He fully expected to be in Fort Myers, Florida, picking up his truck and leaving with Chelsey on Friday to head to Lafayette, Louisiana, for next week’s Korn Ferry Tour start. Instead, he got the Players and the PGA Championship and the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua and basically 2½ years of job security on the biggest tour in the world to anticipate.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” he said, sitting in the shadow of the PGA Tour’s opulent Sawgrass clubhouse. “It’s hard to put into words. … I couldn’t sleep at night. I was just super excited. And we celebrate a little bit and I think the reality is gonna sink in, in the coming days. Not really, we were just really focused on what we needed to do. And honestly, I can look back and say we did a great job of that trying to block out the thoughts about what it would do for our lives. That’s a real challenging thing.”
How does his excitement level this week in making his Sawgrass debut compare with what he and Chelsey went through last week?
“Well, the stress level is much lower and the excitement level’s much higher,” Brehm said. “Until you get into the thick of it … my guess is I’m going to be shaking like a leaf on the first hole. This is the biggest stage. I played the golf course yesterday, and the difficulty level is as high as I’ve ever seen. So there’s going to be a lot of different curve balls thrown at me this week. You never know how you’re going to handle it.”
Brehm hopes to ride the adrenaline through this week and then sit down with his wife and enjoy the luxury of planning out a PGA Tour schedule for the first time.
“I just think we’re going to need to take a little bit of time to kind of re-evaluate because our goals were to get back here,” he said. “Our goals starting off the year were to play the Korn Ferry Tour and put ourselves in a situation to get our PGA Tour card back. Well, we got it back. So now we need to kind of re-evaluate, set some new goals; that’s not gonna happen this week. This week, we’re gonna try and ride the momentum and make it the best week we can make it. But after that, we’re gonna sit down and reassess.”
What about Chelsey’s future as his caddie?
“A million-dollar question; she fired me,” Brehm said, noting she’s already off the bag. “Honestly, I don’t know how comfortable she really is, being out in the spotlight. She’s first and foremost my wife, and we’re gonna honor that. I think she does love coming out here and being a part of this, but there’s other things she wants to do.”
After two previous bites of the PGA Tour apple, Brehm hopes he’s finally in a place in his career to take better advantage of the extended opportunity this time around.
“I know enough to know that that 2½ years is going to go quickly and I need to use this to catapult me and not allow myself to get complacent,” he said. “As long as I can look back and take the positives from this and really try and grow as a player, I won’t have any regrets. If I let this thing just go to my head – become lazy, become worthless – that will be a big regret.”
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