By: Edward Egros

May 2019

Parting PGA Championship Thoughts

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In this era of hackathons and beating conventional wisdom, Brooks Koepka may have figured out this golf thing. The 29-year-old has won four majors in his first eight starts, something only Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan have ever accomplished. He is also the only golfer ever to own two major titles in consecutive years simultaneously (the U.S. Open being the other) and he's jumped into the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings.

His brute force only begins to describe why he's on such a major tear. Koepka is judicious when it comes to where he plays. Among the Top 20 ranked players in the latest FedExCup Standings, Koepka has only played in 12 events. Only six other golfers have played in fewer, and many of those like Justin Rose and Francesco Molinari also play on the European Tour. Koepka also believes in playing an event the week before the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, including
at last week's Byron Nelson; in fact, he was the only player in the Top 10 in the OWGR to play that tournament. While different golfers prepare differently, Koepka's scheduling decisions are deliberate.

Despite his physique and
well-documented workout regimen, it may come as a surprise Koepka does not rank in the top ten in average driving distance (308.7 yards). He also ranks 17th in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee among all players on tour. What helps him stand apart is actually his approach game. Per ShotLink, in his dozen events played, he finished first or second in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green four times, including a first-place result at Bethpage Black. When he goes for the green, his average distance has come in first or second four times, including a first-place result this weekend. Golf data scientist Mark Broadie has pointed out one of the bigger factors for lowering golf scores is the approach game, and Koepka has found his way to need fewer strokes there.

Lastly, there is the dynamic of majors themselves. Koepka has won more majors than non-majors (4 vs 2). His rationale is
a smaller field of competition:

"There's 156 [players] in the field, so you figure 80 of them I'm just going to beat," said Koepka. "You figure about half of them won't play well from there, so you're down to about maybe 35. And then from 35, some of them just - pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you've just got to beat those guys."

There is truth to this logic. Several players at majors qualify as amateurs, club professionals or earned exemptions based upon achievements from decades ago. Many golfers may be playing well that season but are unable to play in a major, such as Scott Piercy and Ryan Palmer, who rank in the Top 21 in the latest FedExCup standings but did not play in the Masters. Non-majors maintain rigorous qualifications, and with so many players at the peak of their games, one is bound to play so well that even the most accomplished will not win.

Brooks Koepka has a simple approach: play the week before majors, concentrate on the approach game from a variety of distances and landing spots and spend more time preparing for majors than other tournaments. Unless someone else can hack the system more efficiently, he will be strong-arming majors for years to come.