The question that we’re about to pose here is a tricky one, but first we want to make it clear what questions it’s not:
It’s not a question of whether Brooks Koepka should be on the Ryder Cup team, and it’s not a question of whether Zach Johnson should use a captain’s pick on him if necessary. Those are takes currently being stored for a different day.
What we’re examining is the best analysis we can do right now about whether Koepka will hang on to his current position among the top six players who automatically qualify for the American team. If he can’t, then those questions above start to become relevant, because Koepka will have to depend on the mercy of Johnson and the other vice captains for a pick.
The situation as it stands now can be summarized with four simple facts:
1. Koepka is currently fourth in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings, knocked down from third by Brian Harman at the Open Championship. You can see the rest of the top 20 here:
2. Koepka’s position has been established by his strong Masters showing (T-2) and his victory at the PGA Championship. But, crucially, because he’s a LIV golfer, he cannot earn another point in the four PGA Tour events left. The point total we see now is exactly how he’ll end up.
3. Everyone chasing him can still earn points, and they have four opportunities to do so: The 3M Open, the Wyndham Championship, and—more importantly—the two FedExCup Playoff events—the FedEx St. Jude Championship, and the BMW Championship.
4. The relevant portion of the qualifying system states that for the four remaining tournaments, players get 1 point for every $1,000 earned. If they earn $1 million, that’s 1,000 points in the standings.
5. If Koepka falls out of the top six, only a captain’s pick can get him on the team and that’s a debate for a different day.
In short, Koepka is now stuck in place while a pretty impressive chase pack nips at his heels.
The tricky part is trying to determine the odds that he stays inside that top six. What we can say for sure is that both Xander Schauffele, at No. 5, and Patrick Cantlay (6) are within 1,000 points of Koepka, which means they’d each need a little less than $1 million over four events to knock him down. Max Homa is just slightly farther behind, while Cam Young, Jordan Spieth, Keegan Bradley, and Collin Morikawa would all catch Koepka with about $2 million earned.
From those facts alone, you could almost start to convince yourself that Koepka is safe. Usually, it’s not easy to accumulate that much money that quickly.
The problem for Koepka is that while one of those players could take the 3M Open or the Wyndham Championship, the really uncomfortable stretch from his perspective comes in the two playoff events, where the purse is $20 million for each. That’s the same as several elevated events on tour this year, and we can use a tournament like the Memorial as a rough breakdown of how the top prizes will be allotted:
And so on until the guys finishing in the top 10 are still making north of $500,000.
What that means is that even if you ignore how a player or two may climb the rankings with a win in Detroit or Greensboro, it’s the playoffs that are handing out the absurd cash. For someone such as Homa, Schauffele, or Cantlay, a pair of top-10 finishes would be enough to leapfrog Koepka, and finishing third or higher just once would also do the job.
But those three aren’t his only threats. Even if one or two drop off the map, there will be eight players in those two playoff events accumulating somewhere between 3,000 and 1,000 points as qualification reaches the finish line. A win by anyone in the top 20 at the 3M or Greensboro, followed by basic competence in the playoffs, and they’re past Koepka. Should Spieth or Young win the trophy in a playoff event, they’re past him in one fell swoop. As far down as Harris English and Tony Finau, a really hot late stretch by any player puts Koepka in the crosshairs.
Again, the problem is Koepka can’t do anything about it. Harman could potentially be under attack too, but he can keep winning money. Same with Schauffele, Cantlay and Homa.
If you were drawing up a scenario in which he holds on, it would look like Scottie Scheffler and Wyndham Clark finishing very high in the playoff events, and the other top spots being occupied by lower-ranked players on a late heater. It’s impossible to imagine nobody overtaking him in the next four weeks, but with a few breaks, you can start to see how he’d hold on to fifth or sixth. But that’s largely wishful, and without running any simulations, the eye test seems to indicate that his chances of staying inside the top six are under 50 percent, just because of the sheer amount of money left to his pursuers.
If that’s true, and he falls off … well, then we can get into some really fun debates that bring all the worst parts of golf in 2023 back to the forefront. Until then, it will be a fascinating weekly enterprise to watch how far Koepka slips, and how well he can pull off the cliffhanger act when he’s far from the action that matters.