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Tour Confidential: Is World No. 1 Brooks Koepka golf’s new alpha dog?

October 22, 2018

Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they discuss the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. Tonight we discuss whether Brooks Koepka is now a golf superstar, Johnny Miller retiring from the broadcasting booth, and regrettable questions to golfers.

1. Brooks Koepka picked up his third win of 2018 at the CJ Cup — and his sixth top-10 finish in his last 13 starts — to ascend to No. 1 in the World Ranking. After a year in which the golf world (and Koepka himself) has spent much time debating Koepka’s place in the game, what does this latest achievement mean for his status?

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor (@Jeff_Ritter): It’s another notch in the ol’ career achievement belt, and it’s a big one. No. 1 in the world is one of golf’s most exclusive clubs — he’s the 23rd player to reach the summit since the rankings were unveiled in 1986. Koepka already powered his way to golf’s top tier with his two major wins this year. This is further validation.

Sean Zak, assistant editor (@sean_zak): It’s simply a numbers thing, but it means A LOT to Koepka. He knew just how short he was of taking the top spot during the playoffs. He wanted to do it during a week in which DJ was playing, though. He’ll gladly take it, but he might be a touch underwhelmed.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@AlanShipnuck): It codifies what we’ve known for a while: Koepka is the best player in golf, full stop. More than any other top player, he is a cold-blooded closer, and we saw that again in Korea with his final-round 64 and walk-off eagle.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@dylan_dethier): It happened while people were sleeping or paying attention to other sports, but don’t overlook this finish. Koepka let the CJ Cup field back into contention with a couple bogeys on the front nine, but then he slammed the door. Birdie-birdie-par-eagle finish? Seven-under 29 coming in to win? Crown him. King Koepka.

2What did you learn about Koepka in 2018 that you didn’t know a year ago?

Ritter: I was one of the misguided souls who underplayed Koepka’s win at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, because I thought he benefited from a bomb-and-gouge setup. And when he missed time earlier this year with a wrist injury, I thought he might not be a factor this season. Wrong, and wrong again. His power game travels, and he posses a bigger clutch gene than I ever realized, as evidenced by the way he held off Tiger on Sunday at the PGA.

Zak: I learned a lot about Koepka. What has stood out the most is how aware he is. Whether that’s good or bad, he’s aware of the media, who’s getting interviewed after tournament rounds, who gets asked questions in team Ryder Cup pressers. It all leads to a Tiger-Woods-esque chip on his shoulder that we don’t see from anyone else.

Shipnuck: How hot he burns. I’ve seen it up close in the gym, and in the media center. The too-cool-for-school vibe he likes to project isn’t reflective of how much he cares.

Dethier: I learned that Koepka really burns to be the alpha dog. Loves to win. Keeps a scorecard of how he’s perceived. Refuses to show weakness. I really wish he’d let himself show some of this desire, because no doubt it would endear him to more fans. But Koepka wants to be No. 1 more than anyone right now. No coincidence that now he is.

3. Koepka is the fourth player to hold the No. 1 ranking this year, joining Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose. Over the next several years which player (in that group or not) will bank the most time in the top spot?

Ritter: After all this gushing about Brooks, I’m probably going to regret selling him short again, but I think Justin Thomas currently has the best combo of skill, health and desire. He’s my pick by a nose over Brooks, DJ and Spieth.

Zak: I’ll go with Brooks. He plays all over the world. He’s obviously silly-talented, and is just 28 years old. More Tour wins are bound to come which will just buoy him up atop the ranking for a long while.

Shipnuck: Man, this is tough. They’re all consistently playing at such a high level. Rose has shown some Sunday vulnerabilities, and Johnson can’t get it done in the majors, where the most points are up for grabs. So it’s a toss-up between Koepka and JT, and right now it’s hard to pick against Brooks in anything.

Dethier: Koepka wants to be No. 1 and he’ll continue to be. I have plenty more ink to spill on the subject, but this feels like the beginning of Koepka’s reign atop the golf world, just as Rory, Spieth, DJ and (briefly) JT rose to the top in recent years. Term limits tend to be short, and nothing’s guaranteed. But I see Koepka up top for a while.

4. After 29 years as the game’s most candid and polarizing commentator, Johnny Miller of NBC Sports is hanging up his mic. How would you characterize Miller’s impact on golf commentating?

Ritter: He’s an original voice in a sport with, let’s face it, an abundance of pretty vanilla analysis. His fearlessness also helped pave the way for other big and bold personalities — like Chamblee and Feherty, to name two — to find their own place in the game.

Zak: Alarming (in a good way). He had a way of catching your ears with a couple quick criticisms or observations. Golf broadcasts constantly never “go there,” but Johnny was never afraid to. (He was also a bit of a flip-flopper, can’t forget that, but I suppose we all are.)

Shipnuck: Massive. He was in many ways the voice of the entire sport.

Dethier: It’s nice for our commentators to believe what they’re saying wholeheartedly when they say it, isn’t it? Even if, as Zak says, those views evolve over time. Plenty of golf’s voices hope they’ll get love from the players as they stroll down the range. Johnny told us what he thought, popularity (and occasionally self-awareness) be damned. That’s tough to replace.

5. Stepping in for Miller is 12-time PGA Tour winner Paul Azinger. Did NBC hire the right guy? If not, who would you have tapped for the job?

Ritter: I’ve enjoyed Azinger’s work on Fox and, previously, ESPN. He’s honest, quick-witted and unafraid to call it like he sees it. If it was my job to make the hire at NBC, Azinger would’ve been my first call. For my second call, I’d ring ‘Zinger again and leave another message.

Zak: We’ll see. He’s been pretty great for FOX, so as long as we keep getting that guy many more weeks a year, I’m in.

Shipnuck: I’m a big Azinger fan, too. All these years he’s had basically a part-time gig, and it felt like he was being a little careful, perhaps angling for something bigger. Now that’s he’s landed such a plumb position I hope he lets it rip, because a wise-cracking, sardonic Azinger will great TV.

Dethier: Zinger’s been great. But it’s tough to keep the edge sharp when you’re out there every week, which is where Johnny has succeeded. Other calls? I’d pursue Tony Romo, but he’s locked in with CBS so he’d be a tough get. (That’s a joke. I think.)

6. Ahead of the opening round of the CJ Cup, an ill-informed reporter asked Justin Thomas why he struggled in the first round in 2017. “Actually, I shot 63,” Thomas fired back, before cracking a grin. What’s one question you’ve asked a pro — publicly or privately — that you’d like to have back?

Ritter: When I was at Tom Watson’s office a few years back, I noticed a framed photo on his shelf and said, “Hey, what’s this?” The picture was taken at an event in China, but rather than talk about that golf tournament, Watson proceeded to share some of his theories about Chinese economics. Most golfers like talking college football. Watson had me pretty far out of my depth.

Zak: I asked an angry Steven Bowditch if he’d join me on our podcast. He abruptly declined.

Shipnuck: In 1994, when I was an intern at SI, I was given a fact-checking assignment on a story about Hal Sutton’s renaissance, which was due in part because the man nicknamed Halimony had recently remarried, to a stunner who was roughly half his age. Sifting through actual clippings in the vast SI library, I found conflicting reports as to whether this was Sutton’s fourth or fifth marriage, and I had a handful of other questions for him. This was pre-cell phones so early that Sunday I left word with Sutton’s agent, and the Tour, and various other folks, to please give Sutton my number and have him call me. I was dozing at my desk very late that night when a ringing phone jolted me awake. I answered it abruptly and it was Sutton. I didn’t really have time to compose myself and so I blurted out my first question: “Uh, Mr. Sutton, what number wife is this?” There was a long silence and then for a good 30 seconds he ripped me a new bunghole for my insensitivity. At the end of his monologue Sutton apologized, saying he was tired of the snickering about his love life. We moved on and I got the story fact-checked. It was his fourth wife….and they’re now divorced.

Dethier: Sometimes it’s the questions I DON’T ask that haunt me. As I was walking inside the ropes in Paris on the first afternoon of the Ryder Cup, I heard Steve Stricker asking Patrick Reed about Tiger and whether he was happy with the pairing.

“I was just checking in and wondering, y’know, if you have any other feelings or desires,” Stricker said. Reed didn’t say much. Stricker continued, musing about Woods. “How was his energy level?”

“It was good,” Reed answered. “It really was. It’s just, y’know…” and then he trailed off, suddenly aware of the presence of others, including myself. He and Stricker continued the conversation at a quieter murmur. Knowing what I know now, I’d have loved a follow up…