Player of the Year: Anyone?

Phil Mickelson needs at least one more win to be Player of the Year for the first time. Photo copyright USGA/John Mummert.

As we head into the final major of the year, followed closely by the FedExCup playoffs, the leading contender for PGA Tour Player of the Year is…well, no one, really.

The shocking disappearance of Tiger Woods from the top 100 (!) in the FedEx standings has opened the door, but nobody has walked in. It’s like we’re back in the era of 1983 to 1996, when nobody could rise above the pack, and a three-victory season was usually sufficient for Player-of-the-Year honors.

To be fair, Phil Mickelson did claim a major by winning the Masters. He would be in the driver’s seat for Player of the Year except for the not insignificant fact that he hasn’t won any other tournaments and has only four top-10s. One win won’t get it done, so he’ll need to find the winner’s circle in at least one of the remaining events.

Mickelson has never been Player of the Year despite his 38 career victories. When he was young and brash, he told reporters before the 1996 Tour Championship that with four victories he had Player of the Year locked up. He apparently had not considered the scenario of Tom Lehman winning that Tour Championship, which gave him a second win that, unlike Mickelson, included a major, and also vaulted him past Phil to first on the money list and first in scoring average. Lehman was accorded Player of the Year honors in 1996 and Tiger Woods had his first full season on tour in 1997, leaving Mickelson to second-banana status.

Mickelson is still, of course, No. 2 in the world, despite having a chance at every tournament he has played since the Masters to overtake Woods for No. 1. It started out that he needed a win, then a second, and this past week at the WGC-Bridgestone he needed a fourth.

I thought Woods got in a subtle advance dig at Mickelson when, interviewed after his first-round 74, he said that Mickelson, who had opened with a 66, would finish the week as No. 1 “if he does what he’s supposed to do.” Mickelson ended up shooting a final-round 78 and finishing T46th. (Of course, that was better than Woods’ T78th.)

If Woods’ game remains in the tank, sooner or later we will come to a week when we read that Mickelson will take over the No. 1 spot as long as he doesn’t fall down, and the slow-motion pursuit will mercifully be over.

Ernie Els is another who has been an elite player for years without being Player of the Year or leading the money list. He might currently be the top contender for those honors in 2010, leading both the money list and in scoring average and one of five players with two victories. But since winning twice in Florida in March, Els has had little impact except for the U.S. Open, where he blew an excellent chance to win on the back nine. At the WGC-Bridgestone, he closed with a 76 to finish T22nd.

The other players with two wins have not been week-in, week-out threats: Jim Furyk missed the cut in two majors, Steve Stricker went nearly four months without finishing better than T30th, Justin Rose got into the field at only one major and missed the cut, and Hunter Mahan—the WGC-Bridgestone winner—had a streak of four straight missed cuts. Of the multiple winners, only Els has posted a top-five finish at a major.

The players who have been the most consistent week to week have not managed any victories: Retief Goosen and Matt Kuchar have the most top-10 finishes with eight each (who knew?) and Jeff Overton has three runner-up finishes and ranks second on the money list. (People are wringing their hands about Overton making the Ryder Cup team without proving he’s a “closer.” Frankly, I would rather have a player who is playing well every week, but my worry about him is whether he can sustain this form through Ryder Cup time. As for the closer part, it’s not Overton’s fault that Stuart Appleby shot a 59 to beat him at the Greenbrier.)

It’s all very reminiscent of that no-dominant-player era on the PGA Tour, when Ray Floyd (1983), Don Pooley (1985), Scott Hoch (1986), and Dan Pohl (1987) all won the Vardon Trophy without winning a tournament. In the 10 years from 1983 through 1992, only three players won more than three tournaments in a season and nobody won more than four.

It has changed since 1992 not only because of Woods, but also Nick Price (four wins in a season once and six once), Mickelson (four wins twice), David Duval (four wins twice), and Vijay Singh (nine wins once and four wins twice).

The last year when somebody didn’t win at least four tournaments was 1995, but it may happen in 2010. Heck, we might even match 1983 and 1991, when nobody won more than two tournaments. If that’s the case, maybe they should leave Player of the Year vacant, unless Mickelson scores a second win.

The PGA Tour Player of the Year situation is exacerbated by the fact that two of the three majors were won by non-members, Graeme McDowell at the U.S. Open and Louis Oosthuizen at the British Open (though McDowell has since joined). Not to mention that another non-member, Lee Westwood, has been the game’s most consistent player and a runner-up in two majors. But even the international Player of the Year picture is muddled—Westwood has managed only one victory and McDowell and Oosthuizen two wins each with periods of mediocrity. And Westwood will miss at least the next six weeks with a calf injury.

Maybe Mickelson or one of the two-victory players will capture the PGA Championship and get the jump in the Player of the Year race. Or maybe not. The Player of the Year could even be someone who hasn’t won yet in 2010.

There could be a silver lining in this cloud for the PGA Tour. If the major championships and the regular season haven’t sorted anything out, the FedExCup could actually end up meaning something.

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