Watch out PGA Tour: apparently World No. 1 Brooks Koepka can win non-majors too.
The man who is machine-like competing in the season’s major championships – well evidenced by his four titles in a span of roughly two years, plus a 2019 season where he finished inside the top 4 in all four majors – took one of the “lesser” titles, albeit still in a big-time, elite-field event, shooting a bogey-free 5-under 65 in the final round of the inaugural WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational to win by three strokes over Webb Simpson.
It was Koepka’s first victory in a World Golf Championships event.
In the past, the juxtaposition between Koepka’s major and non-major record was strange, but somewhat overrated. Even though he had won “only” two non-majors, he at least had a collection of high finishes.
This season, though? Especially as of late, the difference was mind-boggling.
Coming into this week’s upgraded event in Memphis, Koekpa had posted finishes of T50-T57-65 in his last three regular tour events, respectively. For comparison, his results in the four majors this year were T2-WIN-2-T4, respectively. That T4 came just a week ago at last week’s Open Championship, where he suffered through a disappointing final round by his standards, leaving this week a big question mark.
Apparently, nobody should have questioned him, though, as he blitzed the Sunday field despite showing up for his tee time only 45 minutes beforehand, which is considered crazy at this level of professional golf.
While this year’s new WGC event at TPC Southwind – which had previously hosted all the recent editions of the regular tournament, was undeniably a rousing success, fans were disappointed that the highly-anticipated Sunday final-pairing duel between Koepka and Rory McIlroy turned out to be a dud.
Koepka apparently forgot that this event was not a major… and Rory seemed to have too. Much like he’s played on Sundays in his shocking 5-year majorless streak, McIlroy was extremely underwhelming, carding just one birdie in a 1-over 71 that dropped him from the solo 54-hole lead into a tie for fourth place.
Now, with the FedEx Playoffs looming in just two weeks, Koepka is going to hold the No. 1 position, just as he holds the No. 1 position in the world rankings. Also, barring an extremely unlikely scenario, Koepka is going to win his second straight PGA Tour Player of the Year award.
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Brooks Koepka -16 (-5)
2. Webb Simpson -13 (-6)
3. Marc Leishman -12 (-3)
4. Tommy Fleetwood -11 (-4)
4. Matthew Fitzpatrick -11 (-1)
4. Rory McIlroy -11 (+1)
7. Jon Rahm -10 (-1)
8. Ian Poulter -9 (-1)
9. Bubba Watson -8 (-1)
9. Billy Horschel -8 (E)
11. Justin Rose -7
12. Patrick Cantlay -6
12. Justin Thomas -6
12. Jordan Spieth -6
12. Patrick Reed -6
20. Dustin Johnson -5
27. Henrik Stenson -4
27. Xander Schauffele -4
40. Adam Scott -1
40. Sergio Garcia -1
43. Matt Kuchar E
How Brooks Koepka Won the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic Invitational
Admirably, given the physical and emotional turmoil of contending at a major, albeit one on another continent, just a week ago, Koepka had himself in good position going into the weekend in Memphis with a 68-67 start. He then used seven birdies on Saturday to shoot a 64, which had him just one stroke behind McIlroy heading into the final round. That one stroke was nowhere near the cushion Rory needed.
While Rory parred the entire front nine, Koepka scored birdies on Nos. 3, 5, and 6 to take a one-stroke lead of his own at the turn. A fourth birdie on the 10th followed by a McIlroy bogey on No. 12, essentially ended any chance of late drama. Simpson was the only player with a prayer, but Koepka, as he typically does, showing nothing resembling nerves, added another birdie on No. 17 to claim a three-stoke victory.
Koepka’s 21 birdies of the week was third in the field, while his four holes of bogey or worse (3 bogeys, one double) was also the best. His putting has been hit-or-miss this year, but it was among the biggest strength of his game this week: he led the field in strokes gained: putting. He also led the field in scrambling, while finishing fifth in strokes gained: off-the-tee, and eighth in greens in regulation, although the latter was largely aided by a spectacular 17/18 effort on Saturday.
What It Means For Koepka
There have been so many feel-good stories this year of struggling players breaking through: this was not one of those stories. Koepka did, however, strengthen his hold on the top of the golf world. He is the undisputed best player in the game, not that it was being disputed before.
What Koepka’s seventh career victory did do, however, was soften the reputation he’d had, maybe undeservedly so, that he mails it in when it is not a major. Yes, WGC events are still undeniably big-time, but still, this is something he can use against his ever-decreasing list of detractors.
Koepka was No. 1 on the FedExCup list coming into the week and with the 550 points he secured in Memphis, he is guaranteed to remain atop the standings heading into the first round of the re-vamped FedExCup playoffs in two weeks.
Koepka’s 65 was the third-best score in the Sunday field. One of the two men to better him was runner-up Webb Simpson, who shot a 6-under 64 to post his best finish since his famous four-shot romp at last year’s PLAYERS Championship.
Simpson started the day in 10th place, but soared up the leaderboard after an eagle on No. 3 and a birdie on No. 6. On the back nine, he made three more birdies over the first four holes, and added another gain on No. 16 for the day’s low round.
Matching Simpson’s 64 was Keith Mitchell, whose game had been an absolute disaster since winning the Honda Classic in early March. Mitchell’s bogey-free round only got him up to 39th in the 63-man field, but it was an encouraging ending given that he had only one finish of better than T40 in his last 12 starts, spanning back to March.
Tommy Fleetwood was the closest finisher to Shane Lowry at last week’s Open Championship, playing with the Irishman in the final pairing, but still losing by six strokes.
Fighting through the late disappointment of a week ago, Fleetwood had one of the best rounds in the field, shooting a 4-under 66 to finish T4 for the week.
Rory McIlroy was clearly the big disappointment on Sunday. A week after emotionally missing the cut at The Open in his native Northern Ireland, McIlroy appeared in position for a fantastic bounce-back week after a Saturday 8-under 62 had him in the solo lead.
However, he could get nothing going on Sunday, not carding a birdie until the 14th, and then giving that back on the very next hole. His T4 finish looks unimpressive given the context, even though it was his 12th top 10 in just 16 Tour starts this year, but he did manage to jump into the second position in the FedExCup Standings.
The underwhelming season of Alex Noren appeared to be getting a big boost when he started Sunday in fourth place, just three strokes back of McIlroy. Noren ended up shooting the only round worse than Rory among those who still finished inside the top 25. The native Swede who has somehow gone from 3rd to 177th on Tour in strokes gained: putting over the past year, cancelled out three birdies three with three bogeys, and then added a triple on the par-3 14th to shoot a 3-over 74 and finish T12.
A big thing in Noren’s favor, though: he moved from 136th to 121st in the FedExCup Standings, with the top 125 making the playoffs.
Among those in the field who are actually PGA Tour members, Noren had been the only one who was not already in that top 125 (Danny Willett at 107th was the only other outside the top 100).
A 4-over 74 marked another awful week for Phil Mickelson, the 49-year-old whose game appears ready for the Champions Tour. After missing the cut at last week’s Open Championship, Mickelson opened with a 68 on Memphis to give himself some hope, but a third consecutive over-par round on Sunday meant a finish of 57th place.
Since winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in early February, Mickelson has made 14 starts, with a T18 at The Masters being his only finish of better than T37. This is eight consecutive start outside the top 50.
“It’s special. These last few years have been unbelievable. It’s been an incredible run, been playing some good golf and I’m excited for what the future holds. This place has always been special to me with FedEx being here, St. Jude here. It’s always been a fun place for me to come. It’s always a special place, but to win here, this one is really special to me.”
– Brooks Koepka, WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational Champion