News & Opinion

With 4 W’s, Thomas leads pack for POY

It’s time to start thinking about golf’s Player of the Year for 2017. Who gets my vote? His initials are TBD.

Yeah, To Be Determined. It is still up for grabs.

My criterion for picking a POY, as lazy media hacks like to call the award, is simple. I rely on the great philosopher Tiger Woods, who said, “It’s all about the W’s.” 

Top-10 finishes don’t matter except as a third or fourth tiebreaker. Either you win or you don’t. A POY should have won a major to be eligible, but if he didn’t, he’d better ring up a big win total, as our philosophical leader Woods did in 2013 when he claimed five victories, none of them majors, and snagged another coveted POY.

So here are my Big Three, in order of preference:

Justin Thomas. Four wins, including PGA Championship. You may be surprised to see his name at the top of the list. Perhaps you forgot about his hot start at the top of this wraparound golf season. He won in Malaysia, then took the winners-only SBS Tournament of Champions at Kapalua and went back-to-back the next week at the Sony Open in Hawaii. That was back in January, of course, so long ago that it still looked as if the Cleveland Cavaliers could stay on the court with the Golden State Warriors.

If Jordan Spieth had won last weekend’s Northern Trust event, he’d be the leadoff batter on this list with four wins. Dustin Johnson brushed Spieth in a playoff, and that was it. Two Thomas wins are weak – the CIMB Classic, a PGA Tour stop in Malaysia with a weak-ish field, and the SBS, which ought to have an asterisk because only 32 players (hardly a tournament!) teed it up. But Woods is right. All W’s count the same on the resume. So Thomas is the leader in the clubhouse with three FedEx Cup events left.

Key stat: first in eagles. Surprising stat: 166th in putting inside 10 feet. Rank on money list: fourth, at $7.38 million.

Jordan Spieth. Three wins, including the British Open at Royal Birkdale. Spieth’s other wins are stronger events than at least two of the W’s by Thomas – Pebble Beach and Hartford – and he’s going to win any tiebreaker among the media, who fell in love with his enthralling finish at the Open. In fact, he still might win POY with one fewer victory than Thomas because Spieth is a media darling.

In my view, he’s still got to reach four victories to edge past Thomas for the POY. East Lake, site of the Tour Championship, is right up his alley, but the next two tournaments, at TPC Boston and Conway Farms, are tracks for big hitters, perfect for Dustin Johnson, Thomas, Rory McIlroy or Jason Day (hey, remember them?) and others. Then again, all of these elite players can win on any course.

Key stat: first in birdies per round and in scoring average. Surprising stat: 151st in proximity to the hole with approach shots from 75-100 yards, 175th in proximity from 100-125 yards. Wait, isn’t Spieth supposed to be a wedge genius? Rank on money list: third, at $7.93 million.

Dustin Johnson: Four wins, including no majors. Minus one slipup on an Augusta rental-home staircase and we might be regaling in the Era of D.J. He was playing at a level good enough to deserve that, and with McIlroy and Day not playing up to their usual standards, Johnson was the man to beat until he got hurt.

No majors almost disqualifies him for POY except … did you see him dust Spieth in the playoff with a 341-yard drive right over the lake that was supposed to make Glen Oaks’ 18th hole challenging? For the sake of argument, let’s say D.J. wins two of the remaining FedEx events and finishes with six wins, or maybe runs the table and finishes with seven W’s. Doesn’t a finish like that at the end of the season against the most top-heavy (though shrinking) fields mean he’d have to be Player of the Year?

It’s a stretch, but the way Johnson is playing, it’s not too far-fetched. He is No. 1 in the world for a reason. But he’s got to win at least two more to top the ballot.

Key stat: Second in proximity to the hole on approach shots from the rough, and 22nd from the fairway. Surprising stat: Fourth in approaches from 50-75 yards and first from 150-175 yards. Rank on money list: first, at $8.39 million.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle