Never before has the choice been this difficult to make.
For the first time, the Golf Writers Association of America ballot includes four players in the male Player of the Year category – Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson. A reasonable case can be made for each and every one of them in the deepest cast of worthy contenders since the award’s inception in 1975.
It should be noted that unlike other Player of the Year awards, the GWAA version is not beholden to any specific tour. Worldwide accomplishments can be taken into account – an element that has become more prominent in the modern era of globalization. That was obvious in 2010 when the golf writers selected U.S. Open winner and Ryder Cup hero Graeme McDowell instead of the tour players’ company choice of FedEx Cup champion Jim Furyk. That was the only time since the inaugural PGA Tour award in 1990 that the two surveys differed (the pros had to go with four-time regular event winner Wayne Levi instead of double major winner Nick Faldo, who was not a PGA Tour member).
If there has ever been a conflicting choice before, it was only because no single player clearly distinguished himself or herself as head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. That hasn’t been the case often on the men’s side in the Tiger Woods era.
Woods, as usual, is the de facto favorite. His five PGA Tour wins this season included the Players Championship and two WGC events as well as prestigious events at Torrey Pines and Bay Hill. He also earned the PGA Tour money and scoring titles. By any measure, it was a terrific season that any other player would consider a career year.
For that, Woods’ peers voted him PGA Tour Player of the Year for the 11th time.
In the global perspective, however, Woods failed to win a major for the fifth consecutive year – a seasonal benchmark that he himself has declared separates a good season from being “great.” He also got himself embroiled in four drop
controversies that in some ways overshadowed his accomplishments. He never fails to be a lightning rod.
Scott is the stalking option. His breakthrough victory in the Masters Tournament was the dramatic highlight of the season. He had the best cumulative performance in all the majors and added a PGA Tour playoff event win in New Jersey.
On top of that, Scott had a fairy-tale homecoming in Australia last month. In consecutive weeks he won the Aussie PGA and Masters and teamed with Jason Day to win Australia’s first World Cup in 24 years. A week later, a two-shot swing to Rory McIlroy on the final hole of the Australian Open prevented him from completing the Aussie Triple Crown with a wire-to-wire win.
At age 43, Mickelson made perhaps his best case for an honor that has amazingly eluded him in a Hall of Fame career. He started with a win in Phoenix that included a lipout on the 18th hole to keep him from joining the 59 club. In July he shocked skeptics by winning the Scottish and British Opens in consecutive weeks, claiming the claret jug with an incredible Sunday 66 that left the field in his wake.
That links double came just weeks after Mickelson’s latest heartbreaking runner-up in the U.S. Open at Merion, where he led each of the first three rounds and through 12 holes on Sunday. If he’d closed the door there instead of getting his sixth runner-up in his national championship, we wouldn’t even be having this debate.
Then there is Stenson – the unprecedented winner of both the PGA Tour and European Tour season-long races. Nobody in the world has made a stronger surge than the Swede since March.
In September 2012, Stenson was ranked 133rd in the world and now sits No. 3. He didn’t qualify for this year’s Masters until a tie for second in Houston moved him into the top 50 at the final deadline. He went on to finish top 20 in every major, including runner-up in the British and third at the PGA. Since July he’s had eight top-three finishes in 13 official tour events worldwide. His three wins in that stretch include both the season-ending events at East Lake and Dubai as well as another PGA Tour playoff event in Boston.
So who to choose? I asked three close friends who are voters and got three different answers. One was adamant that it should be Woods, while another used Tiger’s own “major” standard against him and picked Scott. The third dismissed Scott’s Australian accomplishments against relatively weak fields and opted for Stenson “because he did what’s not been done before.” Everyone acknowledged that Mickelson was a Justin Rose win at Merion from being a lock.
For me, it comes down to Woods or Scott. It’s impossible to discount five wins in a season – a feat Tiger has achieved 10 times in his career while only one other player (Vijay Singh) has done it in the same span.
But Scott got the major Woods would trade his other wins for.
And what he did Down Under with intense national scrutiny as the first Aussie green-jacket winner deserves more than dismissive praise.
It’s a tough choice – and it’s neither right nor wrong.