Brooks Koepka's Player of the Year Nod Shows Golf is All About the Majors

Daniel Rapaport
Sports Illustrated
Brooks Koepka's Player of the Year Nod Shows Golf is All About the Majors
Brooks Koepka's Player of the Year Nod Shows Golf is All About the Majors

In news that surprised nobody who's paid attention to professional golf this season, Brooks Koepka was named PGA Tour Player of the Year on Tuesday morning. Koepka's two major championships this season make him a deserving champion, but his predictable victory shows that—for better or for worse—golf is all about the majors, perhaps more than ever.

That's not to say Koepka wasn't the right choice. Four players won three times this year, surpassing Koepka's two-win total: Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson and Bryson DeChambeau. None of those guys played the big events nearly well enough to put himself into serious consideration for the award. Johnson's three wins came at the Canadian Open, the limited-field Sentry Tournament of Champions and the second-rate FedEx St. Jude Classic; Thomas managed just one top-five finish in a major; Watson missed the cut in three of four majors; and DeChambeau's best finish in a major was T-25.

Koepka's season will be remembered for his gritty win at Shinnecock and his refusal to wilt in the face of a surreal Tiger surge at Bellerive. It's still worth considering his non-major stats, which are as follows: 14 events, two second-place finishes, one fifth, one tie for eighth. The burly 28-year-old finished fifth on the money list despite winning a combined $4.05 million alone from his U.S. Open and PGA wins, was ninth in scoring average and ninth in the final FedEx Cup standings.

These numbers are nothing to scoff at—particularly so given that Koepka missed four months, including the Masters, with a wrist injury—and any golfer in the world would giddily accept the year summarized above. But if we're being honest, Koepka proabably would have won the award even if the only two tournaments he played all season were those two majors he won. That Koepka was such a no-brainer to win this award underscores how the 44 non-majors on last year's schedule were fun for all involved but ultimately not hugely relevant in determining who's the top dog in professional golf.

It wasn't always this way. Jack Nicklaus re-framed how golfers are judged in the 1960s—when, not coincidentally, he was in the midst of winning seven majors in five years—switching the emphasis from racking up Tour wins to winning the four big ones. No longer was Sam Snead's record of 82 Tour wins the one to chase. The gold standard became breaking Walter Hagen's record of 11 majors, a total Nicklaus would surpass before his 34th birthday en route to his still-standing record of 18 majors.

Tiger reinforced the majors-first dyanmic by constantly referring to Jack's record as the one he wants most desperately to break. The Major Emphasis is the reason Woods's 2012-13 renaissance is so underappreciated by casual sports fans—he won eight times over those two years and returned to world No. 1, sure. But he didn't win a major, and majors are the oxygen the modern golfer needs desperately if he's to secure a spot in golfing lore.

As Woods's 10-year major drought continues and the prospect of winning four more grows increasingly unlikely, he has spoken more often of breaking Snead's record, which is now a realistic possibility after he pulled to within two with his Tour Championship victory. But make no mistake—give Woods, or any other modern golfer, the choice between Snead's record and Nickalus's, and they'll pick the majors without missing a beat.

By these new standards, Koepka's two-year haul of three majors is one of the better non-Tiger two-year stretches in modern golf history, no matter that he's won only one non-major in his PGA Tour career. Winning this award also weakens Koepka's insistence that he's golf's underdog, a player deeply underappreciated despite his world-beating talents. His continued reticence and combative tendencies with the media means he'll likely never receive the glowing coverage of a Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy. But if you believe what Koepka says, he doesn't play for attention or money or anything other than the satisfaction of winning.

If he continues to play his best golf in the four tournaments that matter most, he'll give the media no choice but to warm up to him. Because everyone loves a winner. Especially winners of major championships.

What to Read Next