Brooks Koepka, James Holzhauer
Raising His Game

U.S. Open 2019: Brooks Koepka is the James Holzhauer of golf

June 10, 2019

The site you’re currently reading is called “Golf Digest,” so I’m hoping you already know Brooks Koepka, the greatest professional golfer on the planet. However, the site is not called “Jeopardy! Digest” (despite our best efforts in recent days), so you may need some help on James Holzhauer.

In short, Holzhauer is a Jeopardy! demigod who just went on a thrilling 32-game, $2.46 million winning streak that some believe is the greatest stretch of … Jeopardying? … that humankind has ever witnessed. I’m of two minds: He was spectacular, yes, but in the end he fell a few dollars short of Ken Jennings’ overall money record, and many, many days shy of his total-wins mark (a whopping 74). There’s a school of thought that believes those two numbers are the alpha and omega of any Jeopardy! G.O.A.T. discussion, which puts him a notch below Jennings. Still, Holzhauer earned money at a clip we’ve never seen before, and currently holds the top 16 greatest individual games in the show’s history (he’s the only person to ever make more than $100,000 in a single day, and he did it six times), and he nailed 97 percent of all questions, beating Jennings’ 91 percent mark. In other words, it’s a legitimate argument.

I will not tell you that Brooks Koepka deserves a mention in the corresponding golf debate, because I am not stupid. He’s not even close to G.O.A.T. status, and despite his current torrid pace, smart money says he’ll never get there. And yet, as with Holzhauer, Koepka has subjected his chosen game to an almost unbelievable blitzkrieg that is changing how we view the sport’s biggest stages. It is, arguably, the greatest stretch of major golf that we’ve ever seen when you take his “usual” level into account. How does a guy who has won exactly one “normal” tournament in the past three years manage to win four of the last eight majors he’s entered, and come extremely close in another?

When Tiger was winning majors at this clip, he was also winning everything else—not so with Koepka. And I would argue that his approach to the sport, on a granular level, matches what we saw with Holzhauer and helps explains his success. Here’s what I mean:

1. Fundamental Greatness

Don’t worry, I’m going to start really torturing the Koepka-Holzhauer analogy in a moment, but I want to start with something basic: We can’t talk about their success, on any level, without acknowledging pure skill. James Holzhauer knows a stupid amount of trivia, even by nerdy-brilliant Jeopardy! standards, and he’s also really good at everything from smart wagering to controlling the game with excellent buzzer timing (he apparently practiced at home with a mechanical pencil). Ditto for Koepka—we can wax poetic about his abilities under pressure, but if he didn’t combine outrageous power off the tee with a deft touch everywhere else, he’d never be in a position to stack up majors. With both guys, proficiency comes first.

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2. Opportunism + Aggression + Confidence

Holzhauer wasn’t the first Jeopardy! player to hunt for Daily Doubles from the outset, but he was the first to incorporate that heatseeking strategy with huge wagers and a remarkably high success rate. Nothing scared him—as a professional gambler, he knew that when he had a chance to leave the others in his dust, it was the smart play to take that chance. The leverage moments, by and large, belonged to him. While most players tend to take a conservative approach to Daily Doubles because they don’t want to lose all their money, Holzhauer used those clues to establish enormous leads and seemed immune to risk. While normal contestants become increasingly nervous as the game wears on (particularly if it’s tight), Holzhauer never stopped trusting his ability to capitalize, and in fact became bolder as the minutes wore on.

It’s the same with Koepka, who changed the way many of us think about majors, myself included, with this quote:

“I think sometimes the majors are the easiest ones to win. Half the people shoot themselves out of it, and mentally I know I can beat most of them, and then from there it’s those guys left, who’s going to play good and who can win? … There’s 156 (players) in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat. From there, you figure about half of them won’t play well, so you’re down to maybe 35. And then from 35, some of them just – pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys.”

Hailey Garrett/PGA of America

Koepka celebrates his second straight PGA Championship victory on the 18th hole at Bethpage last month, his fourth major win in his last eight major starts.

Unlike Rory McIlroy, who clearly feels intense pressure as he goes for the career slam each year at the Masters, or Phil Mickelson, who seems to have a similar mental obstacle at the U.S. Open, or any number of great players who have never won a big event, Koepka looks at majors and sees not an imposing obstacle, but a rare opportunity—his own kind of leverage event. And he takes advantage of that opportunity, playing with the kind of almost reckless aggression you’d expect at a tournament with lesser stakes. From a psychological standpoint, it’s kind of revolutionary. He has the outside-the-box intelligence to recognize the chance that majors present, and the courage to follow a bold plan. It gives him an immediate mental edge over almost everyone else in the field, to the point that he walks the fairways like a man among boys.

3. Merciless Front-Running

Almost all of Holzhauer’s 32 wins were over by the time Final Jeopardy came, meaning that he had more than doubled his opponents’ totals and, barring the type of dumb wager he would never make, could not be caught even if he missed the last answer (which he did only once in 33 tries). Koepka, too, has shown a predilection for running out to big leads on the weekend, and either making the final round dull or, as we saw in last month’s PGA Championship, prevailing despite a rocky Sunday because the starting margin was too big to overcome.

Holzhauer jumped to early leads that made it too difficult for others to come back from.

4. Closer’s Mentality

To repeat, Holzhauer nailed 32 of 33 Final Jeopardy clues, which are typically among the hardest in any show. More importantly, he almost always went on massive runs at the end of Double Jeopardy to put the game out of reach, cleaning up on the high-money clues and the Daily Doubles. Koepka, in both U.S. Open wins, fought from within a crowded field on Sunday to secure the trophy, doing it on a relatively easy Erin Hills course in 2017, after starting in a three-way tie for second, and on the monstrous Shinnecock Hills in 2018 from a four-way tie for first. He played his last 12 holes in five under at the 2018 PGA to race away from Tiger Woods and Adam Scott, and despite a nightmarish stretch on the front nine at Bethpage Black last month, he regained his composure at the exact moment when DJ floundered—the moment when victory was tangible.

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5. Unusual Nerve

It’s easy enough for Koepka to proclaim that majors are actually “easy” compared to other events, or for Holzhauer to invent a strategy that can, in theory, obliterate existing *Jeopardy!*records. To carry it out is something else entirely, and demands a nearly deranged “go-for-it-on-fourth-down-every-time” kind of commitment that defies the human instinct for caution in tense situations. Dreaming it up is one thing—and a special thing, no doubt—but executing it requires a kind of nervy genius that veers close to insanity.

Tiger won majors because he was once-in-a-lifetime talent who won everything. Others win because they have great weeks, or capture that in-the-zone swagger at the perfect time. Koepka has the potential to win for all the usual, boring reasons, but he owns the majors today because he thinks about them differently than anyone else, and can translate those radical thoughts into action. He and James Holzhauer have very different skill sets, but in their competitive, strategic hearts, they are soul brothers.

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