Speaking in a press conference ahead of the 2019 PGA Championship, Brooks Koepka made the scribes look up from their notes and screens with remarks that came across arrogantly reductive. Koepka said he viewed major championships, those most important and intense cauldrons in the game, as the easiest tournaments to win.
“There’s 156 [players] in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat,” Koepka said. “You figure about half of them won’t play well from there, so you’re down to about maybe 35. And then from 35, some of them just – pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys.” Brooks then held a seven-shot lead on Friday evening and won his fourth major championship two days later at Bethpage.
The reaction to Koepka’s words framed them as brash or cocky. It was blunt, for sure, as he was saying that there isn’t much competition for him when he’s at the top of his game. But when you look at the data, he may be on to something.
Since 2013, a span of 40 major championships, the only player to win a major while ranked outside the top 30 of the Official World Golf Ranking was Phil Mickelson at last year’s PGA Championship. One of the best players of all time caught lightning in a bottle for four days. The other 39 major winners in this span were all near the top of the world rankings when they lifted their respective trophies. In fact, most of them were in the top 15.
Now, it makes sense that the best players would win the biggest tournaments. But to have gone 10 years with just one surprise winner is notable. Players ranked outside the top 30 in the OWGR win PGA Tour events all the time. Hell, nine have won a tour event in 2022 alone. But knowing that recent history is against them, has the possibility for a longshot to win a major championship dwindled to almost nothing in the modern era?
In recent memory, nearly all of the men’s major championships were won by world-class talents and that leaves us with three basic outcomes throughout the PGA Tour schedule:
1. Top-tier player wins normal PGA Tour event
2. Lower-tier player wins normal PGA Tour event
3. Top-tier player wins major championship
This is not to say that there will never be another underdog story, but the modern makeup of the PGA Tour makes that very difficult. There is a fundamental difference between PGA Tour events and major championships: the strength of field. Many PGA Tour events are lucky to get 20 of the top 50 in the OWGR in attendance, while major championships regularly put together the full 50. That’s not necessarily a new phenomenon, but when you take into consideration the increased depth of talent in professional golf, you quickly understand how much better major championship fields really are, especially at the top.
Given the incredible fields at majors, it’s no wonder that the level of play it takes to win a title is higher than a normal PGA Tour event. At least a few of the elite players are going to be on top of their game during a major championship, and that doesn’t leave any room for error. Here are some Strokes Gained ranks from recent PGA Tour events and major championships, courtesy of Data Golf.
When looking at normal PGA Tour events, it’s pretty clear that if someone outside the top tier of players wants to win, they have to be firing on all cylinders. For instance, K.H. Lee, last week’s winner, barely outlasted Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matusyama to win at TPC Craig Ranch. On the other hand, Spieth’s elite talent was enough for him to overcome a horrendous putting week at the RBC Heritage and earn the victory there. Similarly, Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns, two other top-15 players, were good enough to overcome poor performances off the tee at the Valspar and API to win. At major championships, there is no room for weakness. One of the top players is going to play well, and no matter how good a lower-level guy plays that week, they probably won’t be able to overcome elite talent.
Instead of looking at Koepka’s 2019 comments as brash, we should look at them as honest and instructive. Brooks understood that the skill level of the best players, himself included, was too much for the majority of the field to beat, especially when the stakes are highest and everyone’s attention is dialed.
When looking at the 2022 PGA Championship and the current world ranking, it’s hard to conclude that anyone outside the top 30 players has a good chance at lifting the Wanamaker Trophy. The talent pool at the top of the game is so deep that it makes it extremely difficult for lower tier guys to outplay them all.
But as Phil proved last year, it’s not impossible.
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