McIlroy vs Koepka: Who Will Win More Majors?
After his $15 million triumph in the season-crowning Tour Championship at East Lake, Rory McIlroy paid Brooks Koepka the ultimate compliment. Asked about the month before, when Koepka had outduelled McIlroy 5-iron-to-5-iron in the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational, and how he had turned the tables on his foe at East Lake, McIlroy said: “If I want to become the dominant player in the world again, I need to be more like [Brooks].” Koepka, who beat McIlroy by five shots in Memphis, was gracious in defeat, paying tribute to McIlroy in his turn. But beneath all the ostensibly kind words, and tit-for-tat compliments, a rivalry is brewing - even if Brooks doesn't seem to think so. And it is one that could make ripples in the very highest echelons of our sport.
These are high words, but deserved. Though it’s easy to forget in the era of Tiger, who put away major championships like they were dishes, McIlroy and Koepka’s shared tally of four majors a piece places them firmly in Hall of Fame circles. However, both players are hungry for more. And the question of which of the two of them will ultimately beat the other on the major leaderboard is one of the most tantalising currently being asked. Excepting Jordan Spieth, no players have dominated in the last handful of years like Brooks and McIlroy. But which of them, the pundits wonder, will come out on top?
Brooks responds to talks of a rivalry with Rory.— Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) October 16, 2019
Roll up the sleeves, playtime is over. pic.twitter.com/x6ofYMjSJl
To be clear, we’re just talking about majors here. For while there’s a good case to be made that other, lesser victories, and even performance in team events such as the Ryder Cup carry water, they will never be on par with the Big Four. Ian Poulter is a Ryder Cup legend, but probably isn’t going to be remembered as a great of the game; the same goes for Colin Montgomerie, that perpetual major flop, and his fiery European companion Sergio Garcia – Sergio though does have a major, having captured the 2017 Masters, he has still underperformed in them compared to his talent. It is the majors where reputations are won and made. And it by their wins in them that McIlroy and Koepka will be ordered.
So, which of the two will win more? Well, before McIlroy stormed back to beat down Brooks head-to-head and take the Tour Championship, I would have picked Koepka quite confidently. With his linebacker’s physique and powertrain game, as well as a rifle sure putter, Koepka epitomises everything that made a certain Tiger Woods, the previous dominant player, such a force. Moreover, he has THAT aura. The intimidation factor that once clung to Tiger now seems to have shifted to Brooks. He can step on a rival’s neck, is a less savoury way of putting it. There’s no doubt he’ll be a factor in many, many majors to come.
But after McIlroy romped to victory in September’s Tour Championship, I’m no longer so sure. Plainly, Brooks isn’t going to disappear, but over the last few months, it’s been McIlroy who’s looked like the sharper man. What’s always been the case with Rory is that he blows hot and cold – when he gets on a hot streak, he’s nigh on invincible, but when his game goes, then he’s struggling to make a cut. Over the last few seasons, however, things look to be changing. McIlroy’s legendary swings in form are evening out, shallowing to reveal a cooler and more lethal competitor than has hitherto emerged. This passing season was McIlroy’s most consistent of all time on the PGA Tour. In 19 events, he had 14 top tens, winning three times and threatening to win even more. It rightly (in my view) won him the honour of Player of the Year, which he stole from – who else? – Brooks Koepka, whose performances in the majors (2nd, 1st, 2nd, 4th) were judged inferior to Rory’s pathbreaking season long play. McIlroy has previously disparaged consistency, calling it “overrated” and claiming he “do[esn’t] care if [he] miss[es] 10 cuts in a row if [he] win[s] a Major a year.” In other words, he would have swapped Koepka’s 12 months for his own. Still, such form is a massive positive.
Even more importantly, McIlroy showed that he could stand toe-to-toe with Koepka, a steel which had previously been in doubt. In Memphis, McIlroy looked cowed, fading to an embarrassing one over par 71, while Brooks ruthlessly notched 65 and took the event from under the Irishman’s nose. The only other time I’ve seen McIlroy look so lost was when he played with Tiger in the final round of the 2018 Tour Championship and, bowed by the occasion and the pedigree of his rival, slumped to terrible 74. Factor in his choke – I’m afraid there’s no other word for it – at the Open at Portrush and I thought was finished. He’d win events again, but on the biggest stage, it looked like his nerves were gone.
After his win in the Tour Championship, however, and the string of strong finishes he’s enjoyed to the season in Europe, I’m inclined to give McIlroy the edge. One thing it’s crucial to remember about the Irishman and his square-jawed American rival, is that, though he’s just a year older than Koepka, he’s been a professional player for five years longer. Consequently, he’s got more experience. Of course, the flipside to this is that he also has more scar tissue, something the brash young Koepka still knows very little about. But one of these days Koepka is going to stumble, he’ll throw away a couple of tournaments and the same wounds that have been shouldered by McIlroy will be inflicted on him too. We do not know how he will handle them.
I’m not saying that Koepka is a weakling, or that he’ll be bludgeoned by Fortune’s strokes beyond repair. What is certain, however, is that these blows will come. It’s easy to forget that his win in this year’s PGA Championship featured a run of dropped shots that looked for a while to have handed the win to his workout partner, Dustin Johnson. And what about that enfeebled finish in the Tour Championship, where he led going into the final round, only to be usurped by his nearest rival? Nerves get to all professional players, no matter how burly their shoulders.
But doesn’t Brooks have the momentum? Isn’t he the more in form of the two? Well, as far as the majors are concerned, there’s no denying this is right. But the majors are not so unlike regular tour events that day-in day-out performances don’t count. McIlroy, despite inevitable end of season fatigue, is still a force on the European Tour. The same can’t be said for rival Brooks.
Augusta and the new calendar year are a long way away. There’s no guarantee that McIlroy’s form wont’ fade as the azaleas bloom or that Brooks won’t recover his winning ways when the pressure ramps up and the grand slam starting gun is fired. But don’t make the mistake of thinking three hot seasons means he’s guaranteed to have several more. Or, that a major drought for Rory means that his time in the limelight is done. Experience, talent and possibly even pluck are all in McIlroy’s favour. If he can finally get over his hump at the Masters, my call is for him to surpass Brooks’ total.
McIlroy 7, Brooks 6 will be the final scores. You heard them here first.
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