MEMPHIS, Tenn. – If only Brooks Koepka’s unique brand of suffocating golf translated to regular PGA Tour events.
If this is the sole rebuke of an otherwise flawless player, which in some silly social-media circles it is, then consider the world No. 1’s performance on Sunday at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational a conversation killer.
While the World Golf Championship drop-ins are billed as the next best thing to a major, Koepka brought his grand-slam game to steamy Memphis and steamrolled the field by three strokes after spotting Rory McIlroy a one-shot advantage going into the final round.
For Tour types, it was a best-case scenario with Big Game Brooks and Resilient Rory going head-to-head in the week’s final pairing at a new-look event. But for Koepka, it was a statement that’s impossible to ignore.
He’s no longer a one-trick pony, albeit with a really good trick.
“Because of what he’s done in the majors the last couple of years which has been something that we haven’t seen in a long time, I guess it’s easy to overlook [his non-major] record,” said Koepka’s swing coach, Claude Harmon III. “I’d get it if he’s finishing 60th every week. But the fact that he’s been able to do that and perform at the highest level has been remarkable. This thing that he doesn’t care [at non-major events] simply isn’t the case.”
Those with short memories easily dismiss the fact that Koepka has finished runner-up nine times in his Tour career, and this week’s victory in Memphis is his third this season to go along with the PGA Championship and the CJ Cup last October. They also probably don’t realize that Sunday’s bogey-free 65 checked off a lot of boxes for Koepka.
His victory, his first in a World Golf Championship, essentially ended the player-of-the-year race, with three victories and a PGA Championship high card (not to mention top-5 finishes in the other three majors). It’s exceedingly hard to imagine how anything that happens in the playoffs could change the collective’s mind.
“I would think so,” said Webb Simpson, who finished alone in second place, when asked if Koepka had wrapped up the POY debate. “It would be hard to beat what he's done. He plays well in all the big tournaments. I mean, to have a chance at every major, win a couple of them was really special.”
Koepka also collected a tidy $4.74 million on Sunday at TPC Southwind. That haul includes his $1.74 winner’s check, $2 million for mathematically securing the Wyndham Rewards race for the regular-season’s top points earner and likely something called the Aon Risk Challenge, which awards $1 million for a player’s performance on specific holes over the course of the season.
That he’s ended all of those conversations a full week before the regular season concludes might be the best argument to finally remove the Brooks blinders.
It’s easy, natural even, to fixate on Koepka’s performances in the majors and cast a critical eye to his more routine weekly performances but that ignores so much including the gravity of Sunday’s victory.
Even without a major title spurring him on Koepka brought his Grand Slam best at TPC Southwind. He birdied the third hole from 9 feet to tie for the lead, rolled in another from 5 feet at the fifth to take the lead and moved two clear with a 20-footer for birdie at the sixth. Those three putts alone totaled 34 feet of putts made which was more than double McIlroy’s total (19 feet of putts made) for his entire opening nine.
That’s not bad for a guy who hasn’t had his best stuff on the greens in recent weeks despite finishing tied for fourth last week at The Open and runner-up last month at the U.S. Open.
“Last week [at The Open] I played great. I putted good, I just didn't make anything and sometimes that happens,” said Koepka, who led the field in strokes gained: putting for just the second time in his career. “When you're burning lips and burning edges, sometimes all you can do is hit a good putt and kind of see where it goes from there. Sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t and you've just got to take it, deal with it and move on.”
But perhaps the best reason why Koepka’s brilliance no longer needs an asterisk shared a tee box with him on Sunday. Koepka and McIlroy represent two of the game’s top three players and produced a unique opportunity for two of the game’s biggest stars to go head-to-head in the final group on a Sunday. It was the kind of theater that even a flatliner like Koepka could appreciate.
“Very rarely do we get to see what we saw today,” Harmon said. “Two of the best players, when they are on there are about five players in that category, going head to head. Brooks was excited to be paired with him because we never see this. We wanted this with Tiger and Phil and we never got it. To have it today was really, really cool.”
It was also really, really telling. Even slowed by a cold this week, Koepka rolled over McIlroy, who struggled to a closing 71 and tied for fourth, and the rest of the world-class field at a Memphis stop that is squarely in the circuit’s mid-major category.
And finally, his victory invalidated the misguided notion that Koepka’s game doesn’t travel beyond the relentless intensity of the majors.
For Koepka, there are no more provisos. He’s no longer just the best player in the majors, as if that’s some sort of a slight. As his performance in Memphis proved, he’s simply the game’s best player.