News & Opinion

Player of Year race could end under Arch

ST. LOUIS – For the second year in a row, the PGA Championship may determine who wins golf’s version of the Heisman Trophy, otherwise uncolorfully known as Player of the Year.

There was parity on the PGA Tour last season. No one player really stood out. Then Justin Thomas, who’d racked up three victories at the start of the year (that were somewhat forgotten by August), busted out to win the PGA, a FedEx Cup playoff event and the whole FedEx Cup enchilada. The golfing Heisman race was over.

Here we go again. Golf’s Heisman race is a good old-fashioned cat race/demolition derby. It is up for grabs. Six players stand out from the rest. Six? What is this, a presidential primary? And it’s still wide open for anyone – anyone! – who wins the PGA Championship here at Bellerive and snags a couple of FedEx Cup victories. 

First, though, we need a much more dynamic name for Player of the Year. The Heisman already is taken. So is the Conn Smythe and the Open’s “Champion Golfer of the Year.”

We need something distinctive, unique and elegant, like the Nicklaus Cup, the Snead Sword, the Hogan Arrow, the Sarazen Blart. (Hey, Blart is unique because it’s not a real word.) Help me out with your own suggestions.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to this year’s crowd at the top of the world.

There are no clear-cut rules for Player of the Year. Victories are important. Major championships are the most important, according to me. 

Here’s our Player of the Year quandary: Three players have three PGA Tour victories each: Thomas, again; Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson. None of them won a major. The three major winners are Patrick Reed (Masters), Brooks Koepka (U.S. Open) and Francesco Molinari (British Open).

Molinari has a second victory to go with his Open title. Reed and Koepka have one victory apiece.

The man who earns the Snead Sword (or whatever title we choose) should have won one of the four majors. If not, somebody else had better have three more victories than one of the major champions.

I’ll take the BCS approach to this whole thing and rank how they stand. Based on what? Not stats such as strokes gained or scoring average or percent of possible purse won, and not on top-10 finishes. I’m going with victories, and the tiebreaker is the quality of those victories.

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With a Claret Jug in hand, Italy’s Francesco Molinari has the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year Award within reach.

© GOLFFILE/DAVID LLOYD
With a Claret Jug in hand, Italy’s Francesco Molinari has the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year Award within reach.

1. Francesco Molinari: The Italian ball-striking machine owns a major at Carnoustie, plus a victory at the field-challenged Quicken Loans event. I consider a major worth about three other good titles. So, he’s got a wafer-thin edge right now.

2. Bubba Watson: The left-hander won at Riviera, always a victory to be respected. He won in Hartford again against a decent field. Watson also took the World Match Play Championship. Winning six matches isn’t easy, but it’s a lot easier to beat six opponents one-on-one than to outplay 155 of the world’s best golfers in a stroke-play tournament.

3. Justin Thomas: It’s unlikely that you can name all three of the reigning PGA champion’s victories this season. Yeah, sure, he won the WGC event last week in Akron. It features most of the top players, but the field is only half the size of a typical Tour event. He captured the Honda Classic in memorable fashion, a high-profile early-season field. The third? It’s the new fall stop in South Korea, the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges.

4. Dustin Johnson: The 2016 U.S. Open champion has been riding a wave as the No. 1-ranked golfer for quite some time. He has won in impressive fashion this year but mostly in unimpressive fields. Johnson started with the Sentry Tournament of Champions, a small-field event limited to winners from the previous season that probably ranks as the easiest tournament to win all year. He outdistanced the field in Memphis the week before the U.S. Open and did likewise at the Canadian Open in the week after the British Open. Neither of those events had strong fields, but, hey, you can only beat the guys who show up, and Johnson did. All good.

5. Brooks Koepka: I was talking with a fellow golf journalist about Koepka and how, for a guy who became the first player in 30 years to win back-to-back U.S. Opens, he doesn’t get much attention. It’s not that he’s a poor interview, my colleague said, but he just doesn’t have a compelling story to tell. I suggested that it’s the scarcity of his appearances in the interview room and on the leader board. Other than at the Opens, we haven’t had all that many chances to talk with him in depth. (He was second at Colonial and fifth at Firestone this year in addition to his victory at Shinnecock Hills.) Johnson, Thomas and even Jordan Spieth are in contention far more often than Koepka, and as a result, we know them better. 

6. Patrick Reed: The man has a green jacket. Enough said. Reed hasn’t had many other chances. He finished second at the Valspar Championship after bogeying the 72nd hole, and he quietly finished fourth at the U.S. Open. Except for the Masters – and that’s a biggie – the shelves in his cupboard are on the bare side. One more victory, even if not a PGA, catapults him up to No. 1, though. This race is that tight.

7. (field entry) Jason Day, Patton Kizzire, Justin Rose: Each player has two Tour victories, and any of them could do a JT: charge through the PGA and the FedEx Cup playoffs. A PGA Championship or any FedEx Cup victory elevates them into the conversation.

Realistically, if any of my Big Six win the PGA Championship, it’s just about a wrap. The Heisman-Arrow-Blart Player of the Year is all but theirs.

Who will it be? I’ll take the PGA Championship winner against the field. Or Alabama. That’s usually a good bet.

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