HARTFORD, Conn. – Ryan Brehm defied all the odds and completed one of the most improbable, unimaginable and heartwarming PGA Tour victories ever Sunday in the Puerto Rico Open.
Brehm lost his PGA Tour card for this season, but because he had to miss the 2021 Zurich Classic of New Orleans because of COVID-19, he was granted one Minor Medical Exemption start to try to regain his playing privileges. He chose the Puerto Rico Open, where he tied for 11th last year, but had to finish first or second or be stuck back on the Korn Ferry Tour.
“There was really no pressure at all,” Brehm said. “I had everything to gain, and nothing to lose.”
Well, Brehm gained plenty in an oppressive psychological challenge for a golfer as he made a game that had been so hard on him for so long look easy. He said he felt calm as he ever has on a golf course all week because he enjoys the Korn Ferry Tour, but his life dramatically changed in fairytale and championship fashion. He shot a closing, bogey-free, 5-under-par 67 for a 72-hole total of 20-under 268 at Grand Reserve Golf Club in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, and a record six-stroke victory over Max McGreevy, making only his 11th PGA Tour start.
“I’m speechless,” Brehm said.
A month shy of his 36th birthday, Brehm entered the tournament 773rd in the Official World Golf Ranking, the lowest-ranked player to win on the PGA Tour since Jim Herman was No. 1,252 when the captured in the 2019 Barbasol Championship. As if that wasn’t enough notoriety, Brehm won with his wife, Chelsey, on his bag. It marked the first time a wife caddied for a victorious husband since Justine Reed carried for Patrick in the 2013 Wyndham Championship. He earned 300 FedExCup points, a fully exemption through the 2023-24 season and a spot in The Players Championship, which begins Thursday at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla.
“It might sound like Bill Belichick or Nick Saban, but honestly, I wasn’t thinking about the impact of my status or anything this week,” said Brehm, who needed a win or solo second to retain his PGA Tour status. “I think that’s probably the real lesson. I have people on my team that will do that for me. Really, I just need to put my head down and hit good golf shot after good golf shot. That’s my job, and I’m going to trust people around me to do their job and they can take care of all those details for me.”
Making his 68th PGA Tour start in an event played opposite the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Fla., Brehm had a three-stroke lead entering the final round, carded five birdies in the first 11 holes and then parred in to earn the two-year exemption and spots in The Players Championship, PGA Championship in May and 2023 Sentry Tournament of Champions in January.
Brehm heads to the PGA Tour’s flagship event after Chelsey signed him up before last week’s deadline, just in case.
“She believed,” Brehm said. “She was smart to do that.”
After his final putt dropped, Ryan and Chelsey shared a long embrace and kiss. Waiting just off the green was Nate Lashley, winner of the 2019 Rocket Mortgage Classic with a bottle of champagne. During a post-round speech to the gallery, the 6-foot-4 Brehm finally teared up.
Brehm said he just tried to keep it simple while standing over some difficult shots in 30 mph wind gusts and driving rain for much of the back nine and stuck to a simple game plan that he and Chelsey had for all four rounds. He ended up becoming the first player to make his first PGA Tour Top 10 finish a victory since Jason Gore in 84 Lumber Classic in 2005.
“Our goal coming into this week was just to improve every day, every shot, every round, every hole,” said Brehm, who lives in Traverse City, Mich. “We committed to that, and I can say that it worked this week. I think it took a lot of mental discipline, took a lot of conversing. It was great having Chels up there with me caddying. It was a special week. I don’t know, there was just something special about it from the moment we landed.
“It’s can you produce the golf shots when you’re uncomfortable and when the pressure’s on and figure out a process to do that. We just tried to refine that process the best we could and learn from the mistakes. It just so happened there were very few mistakes and got a ‘W’, but in previous weeks there have been a lot of mistakes. So Chels and I just tried to move on from them, learn, put it in the memory bank. I didn’t really pay much attention to my back being up against the wall.”
But in the next breath he admitted, “I look calm from the outside, but I’m a basket case inside.”
Brehm, a native of Mount Pleasant, Mich., played college golf at Michigan State, where he won five times, helped lead the Spartans to three Big Ten championship and later served as an assistant coach. He played on the PGA Tour Canada in 2014 and 2015, with his best finish a tie for second in the 2015 Great Waterway Classic. He then played on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2016, winning twice, including in the final regular season event, the WinCo Foods Portland Open. The victory moved him to fourth on the money list and secured him a PGA Tour for 2017.
In more than four years in the major leagues of golf, Brehm never finished in the Top 10 – until Sunday. His winner’s check of $660,000 nearly equaled his previous PGA Tour earnings of $810,391 and the $696,194 that he won in 89 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour. And he made only one bogey, on the 14th hole in the third round, while besting Martin Trainer’s tournament-record, three-stroke victory in 2019 with the largest winning margin on the PGA Tour this season.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of doors open for me now after getting a victory,” Brehm said. “There will be some new challenges and situations that I’ll have to navigate, but, you know, we’ll be able to draw on this moving forward, which is going to be powerful, I think.”
Powerful, indeed, and why all of what Ryan and Chelsey achieved and enjoyed together is what often makes sports such a compelling and memorable endeavor.