Reassessing Brooks Koepka’s status among the game’s greats

Brooks Koepka, 2023 PGA Championship, Oak Hill,(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
Brooks Koepka, 2023 PGA Championship, Oak Hill,(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images) /

Brooks Koepka is doing more than winning tournaments again. He’s also forcing a reassessment of his place among golf’s all-time greats.

Koepka’s two-stroke victory Sunday at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill completed a personal comeback from a year of injury-plagued non-competitiveness.

Four seasons ago Koepka was the best player in the world, coming off four Major championships in eight events. Last year a crippled Koepka missed cuts in two of the four Majors, failed to break the top 50 in the other two, and beat feet from the PGA Tour to the guaranteed money of LIV.

But his decisive victory at Oak Hill, coming on the heels of his runner-up finish at last month’s Masters, provides a strong argument that Koepka once again deserves to be considered among the world’s best.

He has now won three PGAs (2018, 2019, and 2023) and five Majors overall. He is only the sixth player ever to win three PGAs, joining the esteemed company of Jack Nicklaus (5), Walter Hagen (5), Tiger Woods (4), Gene Sarazen (3), and Sam Snead (3).

His fifth Major ties Koepka with Byron Nelson, James Braid, John H. Taylor, Peter Thomson, and Seve Ballesteros for 15th place on the all-time list.  One more and he pulls even with Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo, and Lee Trevino. Two more and he’s in a class with Sarazen, Snead, Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, and Arnold Palmer.

Given the changing nature of the sport over time, the best way to measure the career impact of a player against those of previous generations is by the sum of the standard deviations of his performances in Majors.

Standard deviation normalizes for changes in equipment, weather, training, and other factors by assessing the superiority of each player against the best of their own era.

The Majors are used because they are the only events that over decades have consistently brought the game’s greatest players together.

Career standard deviation is a cumulative stat, so it does convey some advantage to players who are farther into their careers than Brooks Koepka (33). Before getting into those career numbers, let it be noted that Koepka’s two-stroke win over Viktor Hovland and Scottie Scheffler Sunday translated to 2.67 standard deviations better than the four-round field average score of 285.11.

Since Brooks Koepka turned pro in 2012, the cumulative standard deviation of his 36 Major tournament appearances amounts to -15.93. (Because golf is a game where low scores are better, negative standard deviations are superior to positive ones.)

Koepka began the week with the 48th best cumulative standard deviation in all Majors, but his -2.67 score this week did that average a true solid. He leaves Oak Hill ranked 38th all-time, having passed nine of the game’s legends: Francis Ouimet, Denny Shute, Phil Mickelson, Fred McLeod, John Ball, John Laidlay, Peter Thomson, and Roberto DeVicenzo. Perhaps more significantly for Koepka’s ego, he also nudged ahead of Rory McIlroy (-15.18).

The slogging gets tougher the higher up the career ladder you go, and Brooks Koepka has some major names directly in front of him. His next target, at No. 37, is Tom Watson (-16.65).

But Brooks Koepka has been this high and higher on the list before.

Back in 2021, before the full force of those injuries hit and in the direct aftermath of his first four Major titles, his career score was -19.25. That had him in 33rd position among the all-timers, ahead of Watson and within shouting distance of top 20 status.

At his (previous) peak, between 2018 and the 2020 Masters, Koepka amassed -14.6 standard deviations of superiority compared with his peers. If Koepka does that through the end of the 2024 Major season, he again will be pushing all-time top 20 consideration.

Although Brooks Koepka made the biggest move on the career status chart Sunday, he wasn’t the only player to improve his standing. In tying for seventh, Rory McIlroy improved five spots, from 46th to 41st. He still got passed by Koepka, but he’s now ahead of Mickelson.

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Scottie Scheffler, who tied for second, made a 10-position jump from 83rd to 73rd, passing – among others — Greg Norman, Cary Middlecoff, and Gene Littler. His cumulative score is -7.14.

Rahm, the other major contemporary star, only tied for 50th and lost altitude. With a score that measured 0.37 standard deviations above the field average – that’s bad – Rahm’s cumulative went from -4.29 to only -3.92. He fell three places on the all-time career list from 83rd to 86th.