Breaking Through

An inside look at Midwesterner Ryan Brehm’s remarkable new life on the PGA Tour, after 14 years as a professional golfer

Photos courtesy Chelsey Brehm

Ryan Brehm’s back was to the proverbial wall.

After spending 14 years putting together a successful golf career on the Korn Ferry Tour and even a stint as a coach at Michigan State, the PGA Tour pro from Traverse City, Michigan, found himself clinging to his card by a thread.

Playing in the Puerto Rico Open last March, the 36-year-old Brehm had one last-ditch chance to keep his card on the PGA Tour. If it hadn’t been for a final medical exemption from a missed event due to COVID, Brehm would be back on the Korn Ferry today, not battling it out with the world’s best this year.

Ryan Brehm reacts to his birdie putt on the ninth hole during the final round of the Puerto Rico Open at Grand Reserve Golf Club.

“Yeah it was crazy how it all happened,” Brehm recalled. “The year prior I regained my (PGA) Tour status through the Korn Ferry Tour. And I played the regular season, lost my card, but during all that, that was the year that the Tour returned from COVID. And I was supposed to play in the Zurich with Joel Dahmen. But I ended up contracting COVID the week prior, so I couldn’t compete that week.

“So that happened, had to sit that week out, and then we lose our card. And at the end of the year, the Tour called me and said, ‘Hey, by the way, you have one minor medical start left.’ And so I got one extra week that would count towards my FedEx points for that year to try and regain my status. And so we decided that we were going to play the Korn Ferry Tour (in 2022) and we decided to just pick Puerto Rico because it fit during a month-long break on the Korn Ferry Tour and I played well at Puerto Rico before.

“So that’s kind of the backstory.”

But that’s only part of the story, a familiar one for professional golfers who often find themselves on the wrong side of a razor- thin line — just a birdie here or a missed cut there — and outside the lucky .006% of all golfers who make the PGA Tour.

Granted, he’d seen his share of successes since turning pro in 2008, following a stellar college career at Michigan State, where his team won three Big Ten titles. Ryan went on to win the Michigan Open three times — including back-to-back wins in 2009-10 — as well as twice on the Korn Ferry Tour since 2016. But ranked 773rd in the world at the time, he knew the odds were against him in Puerto Rico, and he’d need more than a missed cut this time around. He needed something he hadn’t done in his time on the PGA Tour — he needed a win, or at least a solo second place.

Luckily for Brehm, he had his lucky charm with him, wife Chelsey as his caddie, filling in for his full-time bagman Lee Cheney. Together the husband-wife duo expertly navigated the Grand Reserve Country Club, and Ryan fired a final-round 67 to outpace second-place finisher Max McGreevy by six strokes to secure his spot on Tour.

Chelsey had an easy answer for how much of the win could be credited to her.

“All of it, obviously,” she laughed. “No, he didn’t need me out there. It was a pretty cool opportunity to be on the bag and I was planning on being out there most of Korn Ferry Tour that year, and I’ve caddied in the past for Ry.

“But you know, there’s value to be had in a good caddie (and I don’t think I’m that), but I do think what I learned that week was he had whatever it was — whatever the ‘it factor’ is — when you’re winning or when you’re in contention or when you’re going to win a golf tournament. And I can’t control that really. All I helped do was make sure he was hydrated, make sure he had snacks and just try and distract him a little bit so we didn’t get too caught up in what was actually happening, right? So keep him laughing and kind of just putting one foot in front of the other trucking on the fairway.

“It was unique, to say the least.”

It was also a whirlwind, Ryan said.

“It was a blur, honestly,” Ryan recalled. “I’d learned from a couple of previous wins on the Korn Ferry Tour to try and slow down and enjoy the moment, and reach out to the people that I love, so we made sure to call my dad and my family back home.

“And I’d be remiss to say that I would have won in Puerto Rico had we not lost my mom (Debbie Brehm) shortly before that, and experiencing all that you know, there was a lot of growth that came from that. And you know, I personally owe so much to that woman, and she’ll be forever missed.”

“She was certainly with us,” Chelsey added. “It was crazy, supernatural.”

“It kind of hit me in the press conference,” Ryan said. “To be taking all the questions and just reflecting on what happened.”

Ryan Brehm and his caddie and wife Chelsey Brehm react after putting in to win on the 18th green during the final round of the Puerto Rico Open in 2022.

The Brehms had little time to reflect and had to react, and the next day they found themselves on a plane headed to the Players Championship, an unplanned bonus they didn’t see coming. But that was only the beginning.

“We had already committed to the Korn Ferry for the year,” Chelsey said. “We played down there before we knew what we were doing, so it’s flights and hotels booked for that whole season. But we got PGA Tour status back literally overnight and we were like, ‘OK, holy cow. Our schedule just completely changed.’ So there’s a whole rigamarole of changing flights and finding accommodations and figuring out what our schedule now looks like for the rest of the year.”

Brehm missed the cut at the Players, but followed up with a solid season the rest of the year, punctuated by a 14th-place finish at — ironically — the Zurich Classic, playing with friend and fellow pro Mark Hubbard.

Brehm’s making the most of his second chance this season. The 6-foot-4, 220- pound bomber, who averages 304.5 yards off the tee, has two top-50 finishes already, a tie for 35th at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and a 41st-place finish at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

But don’t expect Brehm to be contented with that.

“The goal every year I think, for all of us, is to make the Tour Championship,” Ryan said. “So, you know, that would be a highly successful year for us. But most of these tournaments, you know, I’m thankful to have the opportunity to play in all of them, really. Last year we did get into the PGA Championship, and that was my second Major, so I’d like to earn my way back into that field.

“It’s never really as good as you want it to be,” he added. “I played great in Puerto Rico and I’ve still kind of been waiting to see that come back into my game and I’d like to be in contention more, but the goal last season and going into this season is to learn how to stay out here on the PGA Tour.

“Getting into contention and winning, you know, that’s really what it boils down to. It’s not about having a lot of average weeks, it’s about having a few really good weeks. What’s the old saying? You gotta make hay when the sun’s shining. When you’re play- ing well, you know, a couple extra strokes when you’re playing well is really the difference.”

It’s that level of expectation — and belief in his own ability — that kept Brehm going during a bit of a rocky start to his pro career.

“Did I ever want to quit? Oh yeah, I actually turned pro and then coached at Michigan State for a little bit before I decided to rededicate myself to playing professional golf again,” Brehm recalled. “But you know, I didn’t want to live with that regret. I always knew I was capable. But that’s not always what it takes. You know it took me a long time to get to the PGA Tour and then to finally win. There’s been a lot of learning involved.

“But I think anyone who plays this game has at least had a moment in time where they thought about quitting.”

So if you ever do, just remember Ryan Brehm.

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