By Dan Reardon
There was a time in golf when length was considered an asset, not the primary skill. Through the history of the game, most of the greats had representative length. But it wasn’t until Jack Nicklaus that length off the tee was the first descriptor for the game’s best player. Tiger Woods took it a step further when he broke on the scene, allying his separation distance with scoring talents around the green in a combination unseen before or since.
Today, a player without elite distance off the tee is more the exception than the rule. See Jordan Spieth. Of the top eight players in the world, six of them have 300+ driving averages, led in order by Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy.
So a good place to start scouting rising PGA Tour talents is the list of distance leaders. It wouldn’t take long to arrive at the name of one of last week’s second-place finishers in the FedEx St. Jude Classic — third-year Tour player Brooks Koepka.
The 26-year old from Florida was sixth in driving distance in his rookie season, eighth as a sophomore and currently sits at eleventh. But his average has been north of 300 yards every year. While his ranking has slid slightly, in the Tour’s new statistical model, his gains from his length have improved. He is currently fifth in ‘strokes gained off the tee,’ up from the mid-20s the first two years.
For a player with only one PGA Tour win, Koepka found success soon after he turned professional in 2012. Initially failing to get his PGA Tour card, he chose the developmental tour in Europe as his apprentice tour. He posted a win in September of that year, then added three more the following year to gain full status in Europe.
In 2014 Koepka played the European Tour full-time but cherry-picked a few stops in the U.S. He finished T3 at Frys, fourth at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst and 15th at the PGA Championship at Valhalla. His high-quality showings within a small sample put him in the running for Tour Rookie of the Year, eventually won by Chesson Hedley.
In Europe he collected a win in Turkey, two thirds and a ninth and was that Tour’s 2014 Rookie of the Year.
Koepka soon realized trying to span an ocean and play successfully on two Tours was not the path to success. He opted for the American side, a decision that gained endorsement when he shot a final-round 66 to post a one-stroke win over Bubba Watson, Hideki Matsuyama and Ryan Palmer at the Phoenix Open.
In his first three years as a professional, he won more than he did during his three All-American years at Florida State. “Whether it be success or failure, I have learned a lot,” he said after Phoenix. “I think I won maybe two, three times in college. But it’s funny. You know, looking back, I have won the Challenge Tour, won in Europe and won here now. It’s been special.”
If form is a predictor going into the U.S. Open at Oakmont, Koepka has momentum on his side. Before he chased Daniel Berger to the finish in Memphis, he went extra holes before losing to Sergio Garcia at the AT&T Byron Nelson. He hoped the Nelson taught him even more about his potential as a golfer.
“I really didn’t have much the last 36 holes. I had no idea where the ball was going and you can’t play out here when you’re hitting it in the rough. It was a lot of tough things. You kind of play defensively. That’s not really what you want to.” But then he framed that performance. “You got your C game and still up by the lead somewhere which is nice and, you know, it is disappointing but you got to learn from it and that’s what I’m going to do from it.”
The key for Koepka at Oakmont and beyond is to find the Woods formula of length and scoring. He has already proven he can refine his advantage off the tee. Now he needs to make incremental progress in the scoring area, where his around the greens ranking of 121 positions him more as a threat than a regular winner.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.