If you somehow still doubt Brooks Koepka, please stand up and identify yourself. You have some explaining to do.
He won back-to-back U.S. Opens at Erin Hills and Shinnecock…and we wondered if he could win on a course whose fairways weren’t land-a-jetliner wide. Then he won the PGA at Bellerive, where the short grass was hardly wide enough for a basketball court.
He became world No. 1, won player of the year and firmly established himself as the game’s alpha male…and we weren’t sure whether his unorthodox putting stroke would hold up at Augusta. Then he was one well-struck iron shot away from winning the Masters.
He used his driver to beat Bethpage Black into submission, sucking the life out of this year’s PGA Championship in a wire-to-wire victory…and we doubted his ability to contend on a course that would take the big stick out of his hands. Then he beat 154 of the 156 players at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where guile and precision outweigh brawn and ruthlessness.
He overcame a worse-than-poor putting week to finish T4 at the British Open and become just the fifth player in the modern era to finish in the top five in all four majors in one year...and we wondered why he can’t bring that same ferocity to regular Tour events. Then, on Sunday, he calmly and thoroughly outclassed the rest of the world’s best players to win a World Golf Championship by three.
We keep asking questions. He keeps answering them.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the season Brooks Koepka has had: Three wins overall; a victory, two runner-ups and a T4 in the majors; $9.5 million already in on-course earnings—more than $2.1 million more than No. 2 on the money list—not including the $2 million he will make for winning the Wyndham Rewards, and whatever money he wins in the three FedEx Cup playoff events, and whatever bonus he gets for his year-end standing; a second consecutive player of the year award, which is just a formality at this point.
Still, somehow, all those accolades don’t do it any justice. He has emerged as a domineering force in the game. A true intimidator. You simply know that he will be a factor deep into the business end of every tournament he wants to win. And, most alarmingly to his peers, he crushes his opponents’ spirits whenever he smells blood.
That innate closing ability, perhaps more than anything, is what sets Koepka apart. He is wonderfully talented, of course, but he is not in a whole different class of ability than his competitors are, as Tiger Woods was in his prime. Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, to name two, have just as much ability as Koepka does. They can match him shot-for-shot on their day. The difference is, Koepka’s days come far more often when he needs them most, whereas McIlroy and DJ can sputter when the stakes are loftiest. And, for better or for worse, we judge today’s golfers by how they perform when the stakes are highest.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into the McIlroy comparison. Rory ranks higher than Koepka in strokes gained off the tee (first to 20th), strokes gained around the green (17th to 106th), strokes gained putting (29th to 56th), strokes gained tee-to-green (first to ninth) and strokes gained overall (first to ninth). McIlroy has played less events (16 to 18) yet has more top 10s and top 25s. He has a better scoring average. Koepka has no discernible advantage when you look at season-long statistics.
The head-to-head is far less kind to McIlroy when we add some situational context.
For all of Rory’s success, he did not finish closer than eight behind the winner in any of the four majors. We already know how Koepka did in the majors this year.
At the U.S. Open, McIlroy started Sunday five back of Gary Woodland. He knew he needed to make an early run to have a chance and he played his first five holes in two over par. Koepka started that day four back. He knew he needed to make an early run to have a chance and he played his first five holes in four–under par.
McIlroy was the favorite at Royal Portrush, where he holds the course record, and he opened with 79 and missed the cut. Koepka had never seen Portrush, putted like hot garbage, and he opened with 68 and finished tied for fourth.
The action at TPC Southwind perfectly illustrated the current gulf between the two players. McIlroy made nine birdies on Saturday en route to a blistering 62—one of those rounds where he makes the game look impossibly easy—and entered Sunday with a one-shot lead over Koepka. On Sunday, seemingly out of nowhere, his game vanished. His only birdie of the day came on 15, well after he had fallen out of contention, and he was the only player in the top 11 to shoot over par. Meanwhile, Koepka birdied three of his first six to take the tournament by the throat, never looked back, and finished with a bogey-free 65 and a three-shot victory.
This isn’t meant to pile on McIlroy in the slightest. He has had a terrific and remarkably consistent season, and ignoring a full body of work and neglecting non-major victories is a slippery slope. He is golf’s clear No. 2 at the moment, rankings be damned. But, for the first time since Jordan Spieth won five times and two majors in 2015, there is no debate as to who the No. 1 is.
And as Koepka so strongly reminded us throughout this season, it is not particularly close.