Golf by the numbers: The surprising statistics behind Brooks Koepka’s (brief) rise to World No. 1

SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 26: Brooks Koepka of the United States walks on the 15th hole during the second round of the WGC - HSBC Champions at Sheshan International Golf Club on October 26, 2018 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images) Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Golf by the numbers: The surprising statistics behind Brooks Koepka’s (brief) rise to World No. 1

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Golf by the numbers: The surprising statistics behind Brooks Koepka’s (brief) rise to World No. 1

After winning two of last season’s four major championships, Brooks Koepka was the clear and obvious choice for Player of the Year in 2018. Then he won the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea in October, a victory that came with a nice check and pushed the former Florida State star into the top spot on the Official World Golf Ranking. Koepka, 28, became the 23rd player to reach No. 1 since the ranking was established in 1986.

The reign was short. Justin Rose supplanted him as No. 1 with a win at the Turkish Airlines Open.

While Koepka is cool under pressure and has power to spare, he did not win many PGA Tour events before he reached No. 1. His recent victory in South Korea was his fifth. Rose won nine times before he topped the ranking, Justin Thomas won eight times and Dustin Johnson won 12 times. But like a master angler who is interested only in catching the biggest fish, when Koepka wins, he wins big. Three of his five PGA Tour wins have been majors: the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Opens and the 2018 PGA Championship.

Koepka started playing regularly on the PGA Tour in 2015, and the chart below shows his season-ending strokes gained averages for the four major categories along with strokes gained total.

Koepka’s performance off the tee and around the greens last season improved, but his strokes gained approach the green and putting were only slightly better than the Tour average. In fact, Koepka’s putting average slipped by half a stroke last season after he finished 10th in the category (0.505) the previous season.

Over the last five years, Koepka’s strokes gained total average has remained within a band between 0.9 and 1.1, with last season’s 0.986 ranking 21st on the PGA Tour. Twenty-first is solid and helped him earn six top-10s in 17 starts, but you would think a player who went from being ranked 11th in the OWGR after the 2017 Tour Championship to first about a year later would have significantly upped his level of play week to week. Statistically, that has not been the case.

So how does Koepka’s 0.986 strokes gained total average compare to other golfers when they first attained the No. 1 ranking? The table below provides some perspective.

Koepka is the first player to reach No. 1 in the OWGR with a strokes gained total below 1.0 since Martin Kaymer took over as No. 1 from Lee Westwood on April 23, 2011. Kaymer stayed No. 1 for five weeks before Luke Donald supplanted him.

Each of the five golfers to reach No. 1 before Koepka – Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Johnson, Thomas and Rose – ranked in the top five in strokes gained total when they topped the rankings the first time.

It’s worth noting that Rory McIlroy and Johnson both reached No. 1 early in the season, so while their stats were official at the time, they were based on only a handful of events. But McIlroy ended the previous season with a strokes gained total of 1.022 (15th), and Johnson finished the previous season with an average of 1.928 (second).

It’s important to remember that the U.S. Golf Association does not make official strokes gained statistics available after the U.S. Open. The Masters and British Open fail to provide this information, too. Koepka played brilliantly at Shinnecock Hills in June, so if golf’s governing body in the United States collected and shared strokes gained data, his strokes gained total average of 0.986 may well have been better.

There are two ways to look at the relationship between Koepka’s rise to No. 1 and where he stands in strokes gained total in relation to previous first-time No. 1s.

To some, his huge wins at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship boosted him to a ranking that he probably won’t be able to sustain long-term because he does not win often enough.

Others, however, could see Koepka as having more potential upside than any No. 1-ranked player in nearly a decade. If his iron game returns to form in 2019 and he starts putting at the level he showed during the three previous seasons, Koepka probably will win more, and it could take a while for a 24th player to attain the No. 1 ranking. Gwk

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