Inspiration comes in many shapes and forms, and in the case of Brooks Koepka, from some unusual places, the chip on his shoulder growing ever larger as slights both real and perceived fueled his rise to the top of golf.
Four major championships in a two-year span, a top-four showing in each of the biggest tournaments in 2019 and a strong hold on the No. 1 ranking are the just rewards along with any accolades he receives now.
The fact that he missed out a very obvious one on Tuesday will only add to that fire.
For all the various affronts Koepka has endured, whether it be via the media, or fans, or marketing executives, none could be more motivating than the dissing he took from his peers Tuesday.
In what would clearly be termed a surprise, Rory McIlroy won PGA Tour player of the year honors for the 2018-19 season, capturing the honor in a vote of players for the third time.
Koepka, who took the honor last year when he won two major championships, failed to win despite winning the PGA Championship and finishing in the top four in all four majors, including two runner-up finishes.
“Somewhat surprised, but very honored that my fellow players thought enough of my year to award me this honor again,” said McIlroy, who after winning the FedEx Cup at East Lake last month said he felt his efforts would not stand up to those put forth by Koepka.
To be sure, McIlroy, 30, had an exceptional year, one that is worthy of consideration. He won the Players Championship. He won the Canadian Open. And he won the Tour Championship for his second FedEx Cup title.
Three victories, along with the lowest stroke average on the PGA Tour this year and an impressive strokes gained per round statistic that is one of the best since the tour began tracking the statistic in 2004, surpassed only three other times, each by Tiger Woods.
Then there is Koepka: He won the CJ Cup in Korea last fall. He won the PGA Championship at Bethpage. And he won the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic. He was top four in all majors, a feat accomplished just six other times by four players.
So are the players suggesting that McIlroy’s body of work over an entire season surpasses that of Koepka, who did most of his damage in the majors?
McIlroy, still trying to grasp the idea that he had won, seemed as though he was trying to sell himself on the idea when he said during a conference call Tuesday, “I think this speaks volumes of what PGA Tour players feel is important and I’ve harped about this a little bit over the course of the year.
“I think players don’t just feel that four weeks a year is important, it’s more than that. We play a lot more. Why do we play 25 times a year if only four weeks are important?”
Fair enough. Except if it’s close, the major winners almost always prevail. How could it be any other way? Those are the four biggest tournaments, and regardless of the significance and stature of the Players Championship, it is not counted among the four majors.
And to win player of the year without capturing a major championship, you typically have to win more tournaments than the other guy. Each player won three.
Break it down further.
Koepka finished ahead of McIlroy in all four of the major championships, which clearly were a disappointment to Rory, who didn’t contend in any of them.
He also beat McIlroy in a head-to-head Sunday showdown in Memphis to claim the WGC-FedEx tournament. McIlroy got Koepka back in a similar scenario at the Tour Championship, so doesn’t that make them even there?
If the CJ Cup and Canadian victories cancel each other out, and even if you consider the Players on a level with the PGA, doesn’t Koepka’s performance over the four majors break the tie?
“I thought maybe Brooks winning the PGA this year as going to be the difference-maker,” McIlroy said.
Two past examples come to mind. In 1998, Mark O’Meara‘s two major championships trumped David Duval‘s four PGA Tour wins for player of the year voting. Perhaps a better example: in 2008, Padraig Harrington won consecutive major championships, winning the honor over Tiger Woods who in just six tournaments won four of them, including the U.S. Open, finished second at the Masters, his worst finish fifth. (He missed the two majors Harrington won due to knee surgery.)
Put it this way: Only McIlroy’s accountants and agents might consider his year better than Koepka’s, and given the endorsement weight that comes with winning a major, perhaps even they wouldn’t say so. Or, another way: If asked to switch years, would Brooks rather have Rory’s?
Of course, it doesn’t help that the PGA Tour does not release vote totals. Was it close? How many players voted? Did anyone vote for someone other than McIlroy or Koepka? If a ranking system is used, did Koepka perhaps not even finish as high as second on any player’s ballot?
The answers to those questions might tell us a few things, namely, that this was more of a popularity contest than a real judge of whose year was the best.
The PGA Tour’s lack of transparency here can help it sell a phony narrative, that winning the Players is as big as winning a major (it’s not) and that winning the FedEx Cup is a true, meaningful way to crown a season-long champion (not without some flaws.)
If the vote was close, wouldn’t that be a great thing to know?
And if not, isn’t that somewhat of an indictment of the system?
This is in no way meant to knock McIlroy, who had a remarkable season, probably his best in terms of consistency. He missed just two cuts, began 2019 with seven straight top-10 finishes and 13 overall, and closed the gap atop the world rankings, starting the year eighth and moving to second behind Koepka.
But the truth is, he’d rather have a fifth major and have acquitted himself better at the others.
If nothing else, it’s a great debate — but one that will have Koepka chewing nails and spitting daggers as he goes for more glory in 2020.