News & Opinion

In golf as in life, uneasy lies the crown

Let’s get one thing straight: We’re not talking Heisman Trophy here, or Madden video game or Sports Illustrated cover. We’re not suggesting that the PGA Tour Player of the Year award carries some type of curse. It’s not like that.

If you’re a PGA Tour player and you’ve had a year that puts you in the POY discussion, you’re not going to respectfully withdraw. It wouldn’t be prudent. But there does seem to be an uneasiness about the distinction, a pattern of diminishing returns. And it says something about the game – how it is now compared with how it was.

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If history is any indication, Brooks Koepka will struggle to repeat as golf’s top performer.

The PGA Tour POY and its PGA of America counterpart essentially are inseparable. Since 1991, the winner of the Jack Nicklaus Trophy as the PGA Tour POY also has been the winner of the PGA of America POY, and vice versa. In ’91, Corey Pavin captured the PGA POY – which is based on points – and the PGA Tour went rogue and named Fred Couples as its honoree. Neither won a major championship that year, but both had two PGA Tour victories. There was no wrong answer.

That said, the awards are difficult to repeat. Since 2010, only Rory McIlroy has won multiple times (2012, 2014), and no one has won two years in succession since Tiger Woods in 2005-07.

Most recently, Brooks Koepka has been identified as the 2018 POY by both organizations. Koepka did some special things during the past summer. He won the U.S. Open for the second consecutive year, a rare feat. He then captured the PGA Championship and became the first to win a U.S. Open-PGA combo since Woods in 2000. That feels like one of those overzealous sabermetric stats, but there you have it.

Come June, a 29-year-old Koepka will face overwhelming attention as he heads to Pebble Beach for the 2019 U.S. Open. Only Willie Anderson has won three in a row – way back in 1903-05. It’s like putting the third barrel on the shark. We’ll all be thinking it: He can’t go down with three barrels on him; not with three, he can’t.

That’s ominous enough, but in the meantime, he has to carry the 2018 POY encumbrance with him. The letters aren’t scarlet, but they do seem transient in nature. The game of golf has been unable to produce a consistently dominant player since the decline of Woods. And the Player of the Year awards reflect as much.

Take the aforementioned Woods. He has won the POY awards combo a record 11 times. At one point, he accomplished the double dip five years in succession (1999-03) and 10 times in 13 years (1997-2009).

But Woods’ most recent POYs came in 2013, when he had five victories among eight top-10s and still claimed No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. We all know where things went from there. Over the next four years, he spent more time in surgery than in competition. He had no victories, one top-10 and fell off the world-rankings planet. The renaissance in the Tour Championship last September was his first victory since ’13.

Consider McIlroy. When the Northern Irishman collected the most recent of his POYs, in 2014, he did so based on three victories among 12 top-10s. After nearly winning the Masters, he won the British Open, WGC Bridgestone and PGA in consecutive starts. His weird PGA victory in the darkness at Valhalla made McIlroy the third-youngest – behind Woods and Jack Nicklaus – to win a fourth major championship. He was the one, or so it seemed.

But since ’14, McIlroy has won only five PGA Tour titles, with no majors. He is now No. 8 in the world, which means, if the rankings were a basketball team, he would be on the bench.

Still not convinced? Then, how about Jordan Spieth? He won both POYs in 2015, when he captured the Masters and U.S. Open, finished T-4 at the British and second at the PGA. His story pumped new life into the game. Surely, he was the one.

The following April, Spieth endured a final-round fiasco at Augusta when he slipped to a tie for second after a quadruple bogey at the par-3 12th hole. He claimed a modest two victories in ’16. He rebounded somewhat with a British Open in 2017, but he recently completed a winless 2018 and has dropped to No. 16 in the OWGR.

Dustin Johnson won the POY honors in 2016, with three victories among 15 top-10s, including a persevering U.S. Open triumph at Oakmont. Johnson has continued to be a top name, with seven PGA Tour titles since his POY season. But he has no more majors and only one top-5 in those marquee events. He has retreated to No. 3 in the rankings.

Justin Thomas won five times in 2017, including a PGA at Quail Hollow. To be certain, he need not apologize for this past season, during which he added three more PGA Tour victories and a second consecutive money title. But a T-6 at the PGA was his best result in a major championship, and he has slipped in the world ranking, from No. 1 to No. 4.

So, what does it all mean? It might mean that golf is in a much more competitive place, a place where “any given Sunday” truly applies. When Woods was repeating as POY in the early 2000s, Phil Mickelson was considered to be his chief rival. Mickelson never has won a POY award or a money title.

If Koepka is to win more majors next year, if he is to repeat his POY awards, he must do so at the expense of a handful of recent winners who still are in their prime.

That’s not a curse. That’s a healthy situation.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD