Ed. note: Over seven days, GOLF.com is rolling out seven bold takes for 2017. Here’s the latest installment by GOLF.com’s Coleman McDowell.
Each year on the PGA Tour, someone makes the leap.
Hideki Matsuyama entered 2016 ranked 19th in the world, then rattled off five worldwide victories and will enter 2017 at No. 6. In 2015, Jordan Spieth made a similar jump – starting the year ranked ninth and ending it first. In 2014, Rickie Fowler climbed from 40th to 10th. It happens every year; sometimes it’s easy to spot, but occasionally it’s a surprise.
Next year’s breakout star is obvious: It’s Brooks Koepka.
A quick primer on the 26-year-old: The bomber was a three-time All-American at Florida State. When he failed to secure his card at Q-School, he jetted to Europe in 2012 to play its minor-league circuit, the Challenge Tour. That bet paid off, as he won four events in nine months while adjusting to scruffier courses and varying weather. He earned his PGA Tour card with a fourth-place finish at the 2014 U.S. Open and that fall was named European Tour’s Rookie of the Year. In 2015, he won the Phoenix Open for his first PGA Tour title and ended 2016 with a win at the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in Japan. He was also one of the stars for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, going 3-1 at Hazeltine. Koepka enters 2017 ranked 17th in the world, and all signs point to a big leap.
The Ringer’s Bill Simmons concocted a theory a few years ago that connected NBA star James Harden’s maturation with his role on the 2012 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team in London. Harden, then 22, got an up-close look at LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, and saw the level of dedication needed to reach their level. The theory checks out: In the four seasons since London, Harden has earned four straight All-Star nods and two All-NBA First Team selections.
The Ryder Cup could do for Koepka what the Olympics did for Harden.
Koepka spent a week at Hazeltine National surrounded by Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson and their combined 20 majors. That was Koepka’s moment to see what it takes to be elite. He immediately responded. U.S. captain Davis Love sat Koepka – one of two rookies on the team – in the first session of the event but sent him out with Brandt Snedeker in the afternoon fourballs. They trounced Danny Willett and Martin Kaymer 5&4, the only American team to win that session. Love sent them back out Saturday morning, and the duo rolled once again – this time 3&2 over Henrik Stenson and Matt Fitzpatrick – and were the only winning pair that session. Koepka teamed with Johnson for the afternoon session but lost to the buzzsaw pairing of Rory McIlroy and Thomas Pieters. Koepka bounced back with a 5&4 demolition of Willett in his Sunday singles match.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but it really has been unbelievable,” Koepka said in the winner’s press conference that afternoon. “Everything that’s gone on between the team room, to getting to know these guys that much better, it’s surpassed everything I ever thought it would.”
Koepka’s game is comparable to Dustin Johnson, a fellow bomber with a quiet confidence and understated swagger. They share the same swing coach in Claude Harmon III, and Koepka has a similar stat profile to the 2015 version of Dustin. High birdie average (sixth on Tour), a solid strokes gained off the tee number (13th on Tour) and a mediocre wedge game (97th on approaches from 50-125 yards). One of the big keys to DJ’s success in 2016 was a renewed focus on the wedge game, and he successfully turned a weakness into a strength, jumping from 53rd to 4th in the 50-125 yard approach category. Koepka has room for similar improvement.
Birdie average can be a good indicator of the Tour’s elite. In 2016, the top-5 in birdie average was Johnson, McIlroy, Spieth, Mastuyama and Jason Day, aka five of the top six players in the world. No. 6 on that list? Koepka. By the end of 2017, he’ll also join them at the top of the world ranking.
7 Bold Takes for 2017