ATLANTA – There was a time not that long ago when voting for the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year Award was all about major championships.
Tiger Woods, as definitive a voice on the matter as you can find, was asked in 2008 who he voted for – “Paddy [Padraig Harrington],” was his answer. Why? “He won two,” Woods’ replied.
Harrington won two majors in ’08, The Open and PGA Championship, while Woods won just one (the U.S. Open), albeit that one was off-the-charts historic. But the message was clear when determining greatness majors matter.
That notion was put to the test in 2019 when Rory McIlroy won the Tour Championship and the FedExCup to complete a season that included three victories (one of which was The Players) but no major championships. That same year Brooks Koepka won the PGA Championship and finished runner-up at the Masters and U.S. Open to go along with his three victories. McIlroy received the nod for the Nicklaus Trophy.
At the time it felt like a statement just as this year’s vote for the Player of the Year Award is shaping up to be a similar sea change.
Partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a super season that includes six majors the list of potential candidates for the Nicklaus Trophy appears to run historically deep. There are six players with multiple victories, with Patrick Cantlay leading the pack with three titles. But if wildly unscientific polling is any indication there’s only one presumptive front-runner.
“The other day I said Bryson [DeChambeau], but it was quick and I really think I’d have to change that to Jon Rahm right now,” said Stewart Cink, one of the five players with two victories. “I just think that Jon Rahm has been up there every week and the Memorial happened and then he came back at the U.S. Open. He’s been like a wrecking ball this year.”
Rahm’s resume is much greater than the sum of its admittedly impressive parts. His lone victory was at the U.S. Open in June but that line ignores so much. It ignores the Memorial, where he was poised to take a six-stroke lead into the final round before testing positive for COVID-19 and having to withdraw. And it ignores his Tiger-like consistency.
“I mean, he was going to go and win [the Memorial], right?” said McIlroy, the winner of the 2014 and ’19 Nicklaus Trophy. “He's so consistent as well. He's had like 14 top-10s and he's just been, basically anytime he's teed it up, he's been there. He's the best player in the world and he's shown that for basically all year.”
That’s 14 top-10 showings, and a likely 15th this week with the Spaniard alone in second place at the Tour Championship, which is a .681 batting average. Rahm also gave himself looks at The Open (T-3), PGA Championship (T-8) and Masters (T-5) and didn’t miss a cut in 21 starts.
“This year has been so big and so packed and with all the majors we’ve had and the fields have been so strong, but Jon deserves it right now,” Cink said.
Right now is the key.
While the consensus was happy to go with Rahm for Player of the Year on a lazy Saturday afternoon in suburban Atlanta that could change depending on Sunday’s outcome at East Lake.
“It's pretty packed, but I mean, you just got to go by the wins and the importance of the wins, I guess is probably the big thing. So saying that, I won it in 2019 when Brooks won a major, so a little different,” McIlroy said. “There's maybe three guys that have got a real shot at winning Player of the Year, I think I know who I would vote for. It's probably going to come down to this last week to see how it all pans out.”
The wildcard in this will be Cantlay. “Patty Ice,” as the Baltimore-area fans dubbed the flatliner on his way to victory at last week’s BMW Championship, leads the Tour with three victories and hasn’t been slacking on the consistency front with six top-10 finishes. He’s also leading at East Lake after having started the week at 10 under par thanks to the Tour’s strokes-based format.
If Cantlay were to win the finale and the $15 million bonus for a four-pack of titles would that be enough to swing the Nicklaus vote in his favor?
Collin Morikawa, who would also be in the player of the year conversation with two victories and a major (The Open), considered the question: “If Pat wins this and you have four wins, two playoff wins. No one else has three wins, and three very good wins means a lot, but majors are majors, right?” he said.
The Tour Championship has become something of a bellwether in the player of the year decision in recent years as the season-long race has gained traction among the rank-and-file, but even that trophy and its untold riches might not be enough to deny Rahm what many believe is already his.