U.S. Open 2019: The least known player on the Day 1 leader board, Sepp Straka, has a pretty intriguing backstory

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I am the first golfer from Austria to earn a PGA Tour card, but you could say my destiny in the game was set in motion years before I was born. My American mother first traveled to Austria to be with her boyfriend, who was designing a course in Salzburg. Their relationship didn’t last, but she loved the country so much she stayed. She was working in a golf shop when she sold a golf glove to the man who would be my father.

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Rather, I should say, our father. Despite two golf-mad parents, my twin brother, Sam, is the real reason I play the game. We’re fraternal twins—we actually look more alike as adults than we ever did as children—and he’s always been more the leader to my follower. On our youth soccer team, he played striker, and I was goalie. I was quite content with soccer, but one day when we were 11, after a week-long junior golf camp we’d attended just to have an activity, Sam told me we were quitting the soccer team to play golf. He’d caught the bug. I said OK.

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We would ride our bikes to Fontana Golf Club. The bentgrass greens were always in excellent condition. In short order, we made the Austrian national junior team. The coach for our region was also the head pro at Fontana, so it didn’t exactly feel like a big deal.

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Our mother wanted to move back to the United States to be close to her family. When we were 13, we enrolled for two experimental months in middle school in Valdosta, Ga. For the first couple of weeks, my brother and I were the talk of the school, and there were some cultural-learning moments. But thanks to our mother, we spoke English without accents and made friends. The next year, we moved there permanently. This meant our father would have to fly back and forth to Vienna to maintain his architecture business. But it also meant a much longer golf season.

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It’s been said golf is a game against yourself. But it’s something else entirely when it’s against your twin. I regard Sam as more my brother than my twin, but either way, I never want to lose. Every day we had putting contests, chipping contests, matches. We never wagered anything because pride was everything.

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As much as I hated losing to Sam, it happened a lot. I’ve always been a steady player, but he hits it longer and has a knack for the spectacular, the ability to make birdies from unlikely places. He received more recruiting attention. All credit to him that we ended up with scholarships to the University of Georgia. The coach was interested in Sam and realized only later that he had a brother who could play pretty well, too.

Sepp Straka (middle)
Harry How/Getty Images

Straka (middle) waves to the crowd as he plays the ninth hole on Thursday as he plays in his first U.S. Open.

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My junior year I got a nasty case of the chipping yips. I would stripe it all over the course, hit 14 or 15 greens in regulation, and shoot 75. I decided to redshirt a season. I stuck to my routine and tried to execute the chips, though I developed an eye for spots to use my putter.

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So after Sam graduated, I had another season. We had roomed together every year, so it was strange waking up and not seeing him. While he started his career in real estate, I finally had some breakout tournaments. Before I graduated, I flew to Canada to try Mackenzie Tour qualifying school as an amateur. I didn’t know it at the time, but in the practice round, I met the group of guys who would be my travel and dinner companions that summer. I shot double-digits under par for four rounds on a fairly easy golf course, and I was through.

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Turning pro went about as smoothly as I could’ve hoped for. I signed with an experienced agent who is a UGa golf alum, and he reassured me my decisions weren’t idiotic. Because the number of potential paths truly is overwhelming, I decided to enter the first stage of Web.com Q school in Alabama, as well as the first stage of European Challenge Tour Q school in Portugal. Both are four-round tournaments in which roughly the top quarter of the fields advance. I made it through both. The second stages overlapped, so I withdrew from Europe. They refunded most of my entry fee, which was unexpected and nice.

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Despite poor first rounds, I advanced through second stage in Brooksville, Fla. I made it through final stage in Orlando to get my 2017 Web.com Tour card. Again, it’s about that same top quarter of the field to get through. I had a decent Web .com rookie season, finishing 71st on the money list to retain status. Last year, I was 130th on the money list going into the postseason and had already mailed my check for first stage of Web.com Q school. I had accepted that I would go back to square one. My status would be no more than any golfer with $4,500 to gamble on himself.

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then just like that, it all came together. I won the Web.com Kansas City Golf Classic. The line is so thin out here: Catch a flyer lie and go over the green and make a double bogey, or don’t and keep your momentum. I continued to play solid through the Web.com postseason. I’d ultimately earn my PGA Tour card by a margin of about six thousand dollars.

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Playing on the world’s biggest stage has been an adjustment. But I’ve learned that my good golf is good enough. I just need to block out the distractions— the crowds, the courtesy cars—and focus on hitting shots. My brother quit his job and is trying to join me here. He’s already Monday qualified for a Web.com event and is playing well, so look out. I hope one day we get a chance to beat each other with the world watching.

This story appears in the upcoming August 2019 issue of Golf Digest.

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