clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

If Brooks Koepka Is the Future of Golf, What Does That Future Look Like?

Entering this weekend’s U.S. Open, Koepka has won four major championships in eight starts, and seems poised to take many more. The bomber is establishing his legacy—and he’s shaping the golf world in the process.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After Brooks Koepka strutted off the Bethpage Black course last month, Wanamaker Trophy no. 2 in hand and a fourth major victory in eight starts on his résumé, Jeff Sherman, the golf oddsmaker at Westgate SuperBook, created a special prop bet. The gist was simple: an over/under that Koepka would win 7.5 majors by May 3, 2040—his 50th birthday. Sherman had recently put out something similar for Tiger Woods and saw a good deal of action on it. But the end date on Woods’s prop was only seven years away. At 21 years, Koepka’s is the longest duration of any bet Westgate has available, and the longest the sportsbook has ever run.

“We were talking in the back room about what that number might be,” Sherman said last week by phone. “We put it up there if anyone wanted to bet it, and then we actually took some wagers on it.”

Two $5,000 wagers, to be exact, both on the over at plus-130 (the under sat at minus-150). Sherman said the sportsbook currently has career-long bets for only Woods and Koepka, and he doesn’t have immediate plans to create similar bets based on any other players. “What Koepka’s done in the last couple of years, just being so pronounced, we thought there was a lot of momentum,” Sherman said. “You see someone like [Rory] McIlroy, who hasn’t won a major in a while. If you did it for him, we wouldn’t expect much out of that—much response at all—and some of the other guys too. So it’s going to take a unique circumstance.”

A unique circumstance is what Sherman got when Koepka won the PGA Championship in May. That weekend, Koepka crushed the field with his superhuman length off the tee, set a new Bethpage Black record in his opening round, and made a course that’s so difficult it has a warning sign look like a local Par 3. And he did it all while maintaining the air of a mechanic explaining the proper time frame to rotate your tires.

As his lead grew to seven strokes on Friday and held steady through Saturday’s round, the chatter about Brooks’s place in golf lore—especially as it relates to Tiger—started to pick up. Not direct comparisons, surely—not even Stephen A. Smith is that brazen. But connections were explored, and even Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, with whom Koepka has had a contentious relationship, said that Brooks’s performance reminded him of Woods in 2000, when he won the U.S. Open, Open Championship, and PGA Championship, and went on to complete the Tiger Slam at the Masters the following year.

Koepka dominated both the course and the sport’s narrative that weekend, and as he did, the golf world seemed to undergo a palpable shift. McIlroy was asked about Koepka’s play and his effect on the game, and according to ESPN senior writer Kevin Van Valkenburg, the assembled Irish media implied that the questions were less than well-received. “I wasn’t there to see it,” Van Valkenburg said, “but they were seriously suggesting that it pains him a little bit to have to acknowledge that Brooks is this sort of alpha of the sport.”

Tommy Fleetwood, when asked about Koepka’s performance, told Golf.com’s Alan Shipnuck that “Brooks gives us something to aim for,” and that “to have a guy like Brooks to look at, to want to know what he’s doing that’s better than me, it’s only going to help. It’s only going to help my career to have that to aspire to.”

On the gambling front, Koepka looked to be such a force heading into the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach that Sherman opened his odds at 5-to-1 to prevent a liability for the casino (heading into Thursday’s opening round, they sit at 8-to-1).

The golf world didn’t begin its orbit around Brooks that weekend—it started inching toward that at Erin Hills two years ago. But by Sunday of the PGA Championship, the path felt familiar. Seeing player after player talk about how Koepka was redefining the game, hearing Brooks’s comments about how much more room he has to grow, and looking ahead to a major championship schedule that includes so many courses that play right into Brooks’s hands, it has become impossible not to wonder whether this image could be golf’s future for the next five or more years.

And if it is, what does that future look like?

Golf isn’t easy to project. That certainly doesn’t stop people from trying, but just look back at the players who’ve been crowned the “next faces of golf” over the past five years alone, and it quickly becomes a glittered graveyard of potential lost: Jason Day, McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson. All are still exceptional players, with at least one major win, but none has threatened to alter the game the way Tiger did, and on a smaller scale, the way Brooks is on the precipice of doing now.

And just like the sport he’s come to represent, the State of Brooks is similarly difficult to forecast. Justin Ray of 15th Club, a golf analytics and player performance firm, said it’s impossible to project what the next few years of the 29-year-old’s career will look like. “Trajectory is always a slippery theory to put into place,” Ray wrote via email. “Arnold Palmer won his last major championship at age 34. Seve [Ballesteros] won his last at 31. Five years ago, would anyone have guessed that Rory McIlroy would still be sitting on four major championship titles entering the 2019 U.S. Open?”

Even from a narrative standpoint, you only have to look back at the last seven years of Brooks’s career to see how rapidly—and non-linearly—things can change. After failing to advance past the second stage of the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School in 2012 (the same event where Jordan Spieth was also knocked out), he started his professional journey on the Challenge Tour in Europe. He earned his European Tour card in 2013 by collecting three wins on the Challenge circuit, finished fourth in the 2014 U.S. Open to get invited to the PGA Tour, and eventually won his first Tour event in February 2015. While it took Spieth just a few months to make it from his Q School departure to the big leagues (through sponsor exemptions on the Web.com tour), it took Koepka years. And where Spieth used that extra time to become a fan favorite, Koepka didn’t become a household name until his world-beating performance at the 2017 U.S. Open.

Now, of course, his driver has become one of the most fearsome sights in sports, and his distance off the tee has sparked conversations about the future of course design. But even that doesn’t speak to how fully well-rounded his game is. “Bogey avoidance and stellar iron play have separated him in his championship wins,” Ray wrote. “Brooks’s average strokes gained approach rank in his four major wins is 4.3. He ranked first and fourth in the field, respectively, in greens in regulation in his two U.S. Open victories.”

“He’s super straight, he’s super long, he’s a really good putter, he can hit his irons really flush and high,” Van Valkenburg said. “And his mental game right now is as good as anybody besides Tiger.”

Koepka’s role in the Tour’s social standing has also changed as he’s won. Even as we come to grips with the effect his combination of power and precision has on the game, his persona can still seem elusive. He’s largely an enigma, more likely to use a perceived insult as motivation than to divulge details about how he sees a course. But recently he’s become more vocal. Earlier this year he criticized the slow play that has been plaguing the Tour for years, and asked officials to be better at enforcing the rules around it. He’s also called out other Tour pros, like Sergio García after his antics in Saudi Arabia. Even during a pre–U.S. Open press conference on Tuesday, he called out golfers for complaining about how the USGA sets up courses.

“We have seen an evolution in Brooks’s personality,” Shipnuck, who’s covered golf for 25 years and has spent plenty of time around Koepka, said. “This year, he’s become a lot more outspoken. He just seems unbridled. And he said, ‘Before, I kind of felt like I had to bite my tongue. I didn’t have the standing in the game to speak my mind. And now I’m just letting it rip.’ I think that candor has been refreshing.”

Even as his standing within the golf community has changed, though, fans have remained trickier to win over. “I know this from the feedback I get,” Shipnuck said. “This is like taking hundreds and hundreds of comments I’ve gotten from Twitter about Brooks: A lot of fans just don’t connect with him. I mean, he does kind of have this ‘too cool for school’ vibe, and someone wrote, ‘Brooks reminds me of all the football players in my high school who were mean to everybody. They knew they were too cool.’ And that made me laugh, but I think there’s something to that. He’s this big, buff, handsome dude who has this jock swagger.”

Van Valkenburg believes support will come, though, if not for Brooks as an individual then for Brooks as an idea—a symbol of success. A win at Pebble Beach this weekend would put Brooks in the company of Tiger and Ben Hogan as the only players to ever win five majors in nine starts, according to Ray, and it would make him the first player to win three straight U.S. Opens since Willie Anderson from 1903 to 1905. “If you win enough, if you just start dominating, then people will come because they’ll feel like they want to see something great,” Van Valkenburg said. “So, if he keeps winning at this pace, then I think a ton of people will get behind him.”

Regardless of when the fans come, though, and irrespective of whether or not Brooks has asked for this, he’s become an influencer. Not in the social media sense of the word (though he’s had some highlights there, too), but in the sense that his game asks certain questions of the sport. And with each win, his reach is only expanding.

Koepka’s rise to prominence may have come only two years ago, but it’s already trickling out to the wider reaches of golf. We’re seeing it in gambling circles—such as the prop bet Sherman put out—course design, and even youth academies.

Kevin Craggs, IMG Academy’s new director of golf, expects Koepka to have a lasting impact on the game and the way up-and-coming players perceive it. Craggs has been a PGA professional for more than 30 years and a coach for more than 25, and also spent nearly a decade as the coach of the Scottish ladies’ national team. He’d just arrived on IMG’s campus a few days before we spoke, but in his experience working with young golfers in other academies and teams, he said that not only has Brooks become a force in youth circles—he’s even having an impact on future pros who are just a few years his junior.

“I have a young son of 22 who is an aspiring PGA tour player,” Craggs said. “He was going on the PGA Tour, and naturally now people go, ‘Have you seen the guns on [Brooks]? Have you seen what he can be? I mean, he was there at the gym bench-pressing 230 pounds.’ And the bottom line is already he’s a massive influence.”

Craggs said there’s a lot his young golfers can learn from Koepka’s game. Craggs doesn’t like swing copying, or trying to model young golfers’ swings after those of professionals past and present. (That likely won’t stop people from trying. Van Valkenburg said—reluctantly, because comparing anyone’s swing to one of the purest ever is a fraught effort—that he considers Koepka’s swing to be something of a Ben Hogan for the Power Era, and that he expects people to try to replicate it for the next 10 to 15 years.) But even without trying to directly reproduce Koepka’s combination of force and finesse, Craggs said there are other facets of Brooks’s performance that he encourages young golfers to dig into: “Why does he hit it so far? What are the things he’s doing to hit it so far? Why does he chip so good? Why does he cope with the pressure so well? Why does he rise to [the occasion at] the bigger events? How does he produce his best when the best is required? Those are the attributes that we’d be looking to copy more than trying to get to the DNA of his swing.”

Many of the people I talked to for this piece, Craggs included, say that Koepka’s lasting legacy within golf will be his commitment to fitness and an ability to draw in players who may have once focused on other sports. “I don’t think that Brooks is going to increase the popularity of golf,” Van Valkenburg said. “But he might very well convince more athletic types, like, ‘Hey, let’s pick up a golf club at 11 or 12 instead of at 20,’ and someone who might have had a middling baseball career might be more inclined to give golf a try instead.”

“I think the modern era of golf is finally embraced as if the athlete will succeed,” Craggs said. “We have aligned ourselves very much to the soccer and football and baseball and the athletics whereby it was mandatory. And I think going forward, being a physical specimen, being physiologically equipped is going to be mandatory.”

Andy Johnson, a golf writer, course architecture expert, and creator of The Fried Egg, noted that Koepka is part of the Tiger generation—the players who grew up watching Woods dominate the sport and are now playing professionally themselves—and that his athleticism is largely an extension of that. After Tiger went on his early tear, courses began to “Tiger-proof”; “They made them longer and narrower,” Johnson said. And that process has similarly restarted with long bombers like Koepka, DJ, and McIlroy in the fold. But Johnson explains that, while it’s a good idea in theory, in practice the lengthening and narrowing of courses really just plays into Brooks’s hands, and largely eliminates the players who don’t possess Koepka’s power and control.

Van Valkenburg said he’d be hard-pressed to find a way to “Brooks-proof” a golf course. “You couldn’t have three more different courses than the ones he’s won on recently: Erin Hills is this linksy-style course, where you had to sort of hit all kinds of different shots and judge the wind—obviously there wasn’t a ton of wind there [at the 2017 U.S. Open]; then Bethpage is super tight and super long; and then the Masters, you have to be creative; and at Shinnecock you had to think your way around it. Maybe you could look at links-style courses where you have to learn to land the ball way short of the hole and kind of let it run out, but he has been decent in the British Open so far too.”

Johnson presents an idea, one he admits seems counterintuitive—but isn’t that most of golf, anyway? “If I was setting up a golf course to combat Brooks, Dustin, Rory,” Johnson said, “I would make it shorter and wider. … At Pebble, where it’s shorter, driver becomes less of an advantage.” Koepka admitted as much himself on Tuesday, saying he’s planning to use driver on only about four holes this weekend. “The big thing at Bethpage is when Brooks missed a fairway—everybody is going to miss 26-yard-wide fairways—Brooks had wedges in,” Johnson said, “and hitting a wedge from that thick rough, versus hitting a 4-iron from a thick rough is a huge difference.

“It’s counterintuitive because you’d think that a shorter golf course would help a longer player more, but it actually helps a shorter player because the advantage of hitting a 9-iron versus a 5-iron is much bigger than hitting a lob wedge versus an 8-iron.”

Johnson doesn’t expect that we’ll see that type of architecture go into effect anytime soon—he said we’re much more likely to see courses lengthened even farther in the coming years than see any distance chopped off. But Koepka may, in fact, provide a helping hand in making courses more difficult for him to dominate.

Koepka recently began serving as a player consultant on a project with world-renowned architect Tom Doak in Houston. Koepka is helping Doak design the Memorial Park course, and he’s also explaining what challenges him about a course layout and what’s ineffectual. For example, Johnson—who has seen notes from some of Doak and Koepka’s meetings—said that Brooks noted that many greenside bunkers were largely unsuccessful at hampering Tour pros of his level, because he expects to get a perfect lie and still be able to get up-and-down.

This consulting project is unique, Johnson said, because players usually wait until after they’re done operating at a pro level to do this kind of work, or they’ll do it on TPC courses, which are run by the Tour. This project—working privately with one of the top architects in the game—is very different, and Johnson said that the knowledge Koepka gains from this venture will give him a leg up on his competitors.

“Most tour players, like 99 percent of tour players, don’t care at all” about course architecture, Johnson said. “One of the biggest misconceptions about Brooks Koepka is that he’s dumb. I actually think he might be one of the smartest guys out there.”

Whether or not Brooks can keep up this breakneck major pace is impossible to tell. It certainly seems unlikely. But many of the people I spoke with for this piece were much more eager to discuss the reasons Koepka could do this, rather than examining the plentiful explanations for why he couldn’t.

And there are reasons to believe. Even though Koepka will turn 30 next spring, and the aging process may not seem to favor a guy known for his length off the tee, golf’s new technologies have extended the successes of many players older than Brooks.

“Francesco Molinari added distance in his mid-30s and became a major championship winner,” Ray wrote. “Phil Mickelson hits the ball seven yards further this season than he did 10 years ago. I’m a believer that Koepka’s unconventional path to the top of the game—going through the Challenge Tour in Europe—has helped forge the traits that make him so tough in the game’s biggest events. I could see those same traits help keep him at the top for a long time to come.”

When Sherman put out that prop bet last month, I immediately thought 7.5 majors seemed like a conservative number for a guy who already had four and seemed to be just entering his prime. But then I remembered feeling similarly about McIlroy in 2014, Spieth in 2015, and DJ in 2016. The next five to 21 years could play out in any number of ways. Maybe Brooks storms the field, reaches 12 majors, and becomes third in line in golf’s hierarchy behind Jack and Tiger. Or maybe he makes good on all those baseball threats and leaves the game to try his hand at a minor league career.

Regardless of how the next five years play out, though, Koepka has already made his mark on golf. And it’s one that will likely be felt for decades to come.

“Brooks is like a cleansing agent. He’s like a forest fire, and how it allows for new growth,” Shipnuck said. “He doesn’t get sucked in to too much of the nonsense. He just plays golf and he wins.”

Fairway Rollin'

The Massacre at the Ryder Cup

Golf

The Pre–Ryder Cup Vibe Check

Golf

The Ryder Cup Preview

View all stories in Golf