The title went to world No. 1 Luke Donald, as it should have. Presumed contender Keegan Bradley walked away with Rookie of the Year honors instead.
The question is, would the 34-year-old Englishman trade all the hardware he accumulated in 2011 – the Nicklaus Trophy (player of the year), Palmer Trophy (PGA Tour money winner), Vardon Trophy (scoring average winner), Race for Dubai trophy (European Tour money winner) and McCormack Award (most weeks at world No. 1) – for the Wanamaker Trophy that Bradley won in his only career major appearance?
“Obviously that’s something that is missing from my resumé is a major and something I’ll continue to concentrate on trying to focus my efforts on, giving it my best shot,” said Donald. “I would love to win one, obviously, and I’m jealous of all the other players that have one.”
Not since Wayne Levi (1990) and Fred Couples (1991) in the first two years the PGA Tour players voted on the award has the Player of the Year title been won by someone who didn’t have at least one career major victory on their overall ledger.
“I think there will always be a little bit of an asterisk against my name until I win one, but I’ll be trying very hard to correct that,” said Donald, whose season of superlatives outside the major realm deserved recognition in spite of his shutout in the Grand Slam events.
“It’s a great honor, obviously, to cap off what has been an amazing year for me,” he said. “There were obviously some other worthy people to vote for, and I guess my overall consistency and having to go to Disney (the season finale) and win to win the money list like I did was a deciding factor. … I felt like I deserved it, but obviously the way the year went, there was a little bit of ambiguity because I only won twice.”
Donald’s season, in many ways, was a throwback. Regarded as one of the world’s best ball strikers and possessing arguably the best short game of any of the game’s elite, Donald had a year of steady contention that would make Tiger Woods envious.
Donald posted top-10 finishes in 20 of 25 worldwide starts in 2011. Only three times all season did he finish outside of the top 20 in tournaments, tying for 45th at the U.S. Open and missing the cuts at Riviera and the British Open.
“I’ve done a lot of things this year that probably not a lot of people would have given me much chance of doing, just winning both money titles, being as consistent as I have been,” Donald said as he prepares to finish off his season at the Australian PGA. “I think consistency does go a long way. In the last 10 or 20 years, the power game has really taken control of golf, but I think I’ve been a little bit of a breath of fresh air knowing that that’s not the only way you can be successful. Through good short game, good putting, managing your game, that you can be successful in other ways.”
Bradley is part of the new guard that hits the ball a country mile and threatens the game’s classic venues. That he prevailed in his first career major start at the PGA Championship in Atlanta and won twice as a tour newcomer bodes well for his future. He wasn’t complaining about taking the consolation prize on Tuesday, as it was better than getting left off the American Presidents Cup team entirely.
“I’m thrilled to win Rookie of the Year for all that it means,” said Bradley. “It’s an award that you can only win one time in your entire career, and it was the main goal of mine to start the year.”
Donald lost out his rookie year to Augusta native Charles Howell, but his career has been on an upward trajectory ever since. It will be a very different Donald who arrives at Augusta in April and sets his sights on breaking into the majors club.
“Obviously this year has been a breakout year for me in terms of my confidence levels, and hopefully those confidence levels will be carried over to next year and will serve me well in the majors,” he said. “I think before this year I’ve been a good player and a consistent player but never really a great player. This year has been really a big step for me in terms of my mental side and the way I approach tournaments and how I feel about them.”
The one thing Donald and everyone else will have to contend with in 2012 is the elephant who used to own the room. Before his fall from grace at the end of 2009, Tiger Woods was the default option in the Player of the Year balloting. He won 10 times in 13 years from 1997-2009, yielding the floor only to double major winners (Mark O’Meara in 1998, Padraig Harrington in 2008) and a nine-time winner (Vijay Singh in 2004).
Woods could arguably have won the award Tuesday that the PGA Tour opted not to present, Comeback Player of the Year. After a forgettable season filled with injury and performance sabbaticals, Woods reemerged in the last month with notable performances in the Presidents Cup and his own Chevron World Challenge that generated his only victories since he was hammered by scandal.
Though he didn’t get any official recognition for it, Woods would be one comeback that the new No. 1 and anyone who loves golf will welcome.
“Talent never leaves you, and he was always going to come back,” said Donald. “And I’m sure he’ll come back very strongly. Having been on tour for 10 years, Tiger is obviously the best player I’ve ever played against – one of the greatest of all times. His record speaks for itself, and he attracts a lot of attention to the game, and I think that’s great. It’s good for the game that he’s playing better, and I think as a top player you always want to play against the best. It’s nice to see him playing better.”
And it’s nice to see new greats like Donald and Bradley setting the bar.