What explains Brooks Koepka’s major dominance? Turning it on with his irons and putter

November 3, 2018

Talk about bringing it. Three of Brooks Koepka’s four career PGA Tour wins are majors. So it stands to reason that there’s a statistical disparity in Koepka’s play in majors compared to his play in non-majors, right?

To sort it out, I crunched the data on all players who recorded at least 30 rounds in majors between the years 2014 and 2018, looking at their strokes gained per round (adjusted for course conditions and strength of field) in majors versus non-majors. I then ranked the players by what I’ll call their “strokes gained outperformance in majors.” Topping the list was — you guessed it — Brooks Koepka. In his 68 major-championship rounds from 2014 through 2018, he played an incredible 1.6 strokes better per round in majors than in non-majors.

Koepka’s greatest strength is his driving, powered by his length off the tee. In the 2018 season, I have him ranked 8th in strokes gained driving (0.83 strokes per round) and 8th in driving distance (averaging 15 yards longer than the field with his tee shots on par-4 and par-5 holes, which contributed 0.97 strokes gained). That kind of prodigious pop usually comes with a wild side, and, indeed, Koepka gave back fractions of strokes (-o.14) with his driving accuracy, hitting 0.5 fewer fairways per round than the field (rank: 148).

brooks koepka golf
Koepka’s season was only getting started when he defended his U.S. Open Championship.

No player can win solely on driving, so where did Brooks step up his play in his major wins? At this year’s PGA Championship, he ranked 2nd in driving (1.5 SG per round), 15th in approach shots (0.9 SG per round) and 18th in putting (1.0 SG per round). At the Shinnecock U.S. Open, Koepka, surprisingly, ranked 40th in driving (0.0 SG per round), and his short game was subpar (-0.5 SG per round). However, his approach shots and putting were amazing, ranking 1st (2.6 SG per round) and 3rd (2.0 SG per round), respectively. After the U.S. Open, Koepka’s coach, Claude Harmon III, texted me: “Nice to see Brooks win a major without having a great week driving the ball.”

Koepka’s “golf DNA” is superior driving combined with above-average approach shots and putting. But at the majors, his iron play and putting shift into an entirely new gear. What makes someone a Player of the Year? Bringing it—when it counts.