Not since Tiger Woods was at his peak has there been this clear of a delineation – both in world-ranking points and nearly everyone’s perception – between the best player in the world and everyone else.
Brooks Koepka holds a commanding lead of nearly 3½ points in the Official World Golf Ranking and a margin of 562 points in the FedEx Cup standings heading into this week’s first playoff event, the Northern Trust at Liberty National in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York (tee times).
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And no one appears to have the slightest bit of interest in catching and overtaking him. Koepka is the odds-on favorite to win the FedEx Cup championship, listed at 2-1 by Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Rory McIlroy was the second choice at 13-2, and Dustin Johnson was a 10-1 pick. Given the favorites’ recent performance, why would you bet on anyone else unless you’re just taking a flier?
So, now the question becomes: Who is up to the task of taking on Koepka – on his turf and on his terms? It’s going to take someone or a couple of someones with muscle, brains and fearlessness and – most of all – an unwavering self-belief that is at least equal to Koepka’s.
Johnson looks as if he has been hit in the mouth by the baddest dude on the block and doesn’t want any part of getting even. He’s giving Koepka a wide berth. Being an opportunist, Johnson will pick his spots and probably win his next tournament when Koepka is taking the week off.
McIlroy isn’t going to be the guy. He showed the world his insides when he was in the final pairing with Koepka on Sunday at the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational. McIlroy started the final round with a one-shot lead over the world No. 1, and fans and observers thought they were about to watch the non-major event of the year.
But Koepka swatted McIlroy away like an annoying fly and shot 65 to win by three, while McIlroy shot a 1-over 71 to finish five shots back. McIlroy didn’t muster any kind of offense or defense and looked like a scolded puppy all afternoon. Until McIlroy gets some kind of mental strength, the next few big tournaments are going to pass him right by.
Justin Rose isn’t the one, nor is Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Francesco Molinari or even Woods. Unless someone steps up, Koepka will rule the world for the foreseeable future – and quite possibly beyond.
Here are a handful of off-the-radar players who just might have a chance:
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>> Patrick Cantlay: Very quietly, Cantlay has put together quite a season. He won the Memorial Tournament in June, right after finishing T-3 at the PGA Championship. He made a charge up the leaderboard on Sunday at the Masters before running out of gas and real estate. He finished T-3 at the RBC Heritage the following week. And he was runner-up at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open last fall after having won it the previous year. He’s sixth on the FedEx Cup points list.
Cantlay was a can’t-miss player coming out of UCLA in 2012, when he was the No. 1 amateur in the world. At age 27, he’s had an arduous road to the top. In 2013, he injured his back while on the Web.com Tour and, because of the injury, did not compete in 2015 and 2016. And in 2016, Cantlay’s best friend and caddie, Chris Roth, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while he and Cantlay were crossing a street.
Such experiences turn resolve to steel, and Cantlay is now ready – physically and mentally – for his quest for the top.
>> Gary Woodland: Winning the U.S. Open – with Koepka in the group ahead, applying unrelenting pressure – proved to Woodland that he has the ability to be counted among the game’s elite players. He was second at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January and runner-up at the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges last fall, with five other top 10s. He is fifth on the FedEx Cup points list.
The Open was Woodland’s fourth victory on the PGA Tour but by far the most important. He has all the physical tools to compete at the top. Now, with a new level of confidence, he has the mental tools, as well. It just depends on how he chooses to use them.
>> Xander Schauffele: This season has been one more massive step for Schauffele to become one of the best players in the world. His record in the majors, especially without a victory, is exemplary. He tied for second at the Masters and was T-3 in the U.S. Open. A disappointing final-round 76 in the tough conditions knocked him out of the top 10 at the PGA.
Schauffele has two wins this season and is fourth on the FedEx Cup points list. Not only does he have plenty of game to compete at the top, but he has a toughness that is difficult to measure. A breakthrough win at a major – and soon – won’t be unexpected.
>> Wolffikawa: Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa have taken the late summer by storm on the PGA Tour, with both winning after only a handful of starts. They represent the new breed of college players who come out on Tour afraid of absolutely nothing. They believe that they belong on Tour – and in the winner’s circle – on Day One. They might not challenge Koepka right away, but don’t be at all surprised if one or both of them leap up the world ranking very soon.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf