ATLANTA – Normally the master of self-deprecation, even Rory McIlroy had a hard time playing this one straight.
“Hopefully by the end of this week there shouldn’t be any doubt about the Player of the Year Award . . . but depending on who wins this, you never know,” the world No. 1 allowed with only the beginnings of a smirk etched into his face.
The ballots for the PGA Tour Player of the Year Award will be sent out on Sunday night but if an informal poll of players on Wednesday at the Tour Championship is any indication the circuit may as well forgo the formality and ship the hardware to McIlroy’s South Florida digs right now.
While the world No. 1 successfully choked back a laugh when asked about the year-end award, his frat brothers couldn’t muster the same detached discipline.
“It’s a no-brainer. It’s about as easy a decision as they come,” Hunter Mahan said.
There are 10 million reasons to respect the FedEx Cup and what it means to the players, but many players, including Mahan, figured the Tour could already start engraving McIlroy’s name into the Jack Nicklaus Award regardless of what transpires this week at East Lake after the year he’s had.
“I think everyone knows who it’s going to be,” Jason Day said. “Everyone is 99.9 percent sure it will be Rory.”
Considering the Northern Irishman’s resume this year it’s hard to argue with Day and Mahan. McIlroy won the Open Championship, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in consecutive weeks.
McIlroy – who won the Player of the Year Award in 2012 – wrested the top ranking from Adam Scott in July, hasn’t missed a cut, has finished in the top 10 in 11 of his 16 starts and moved to within a green jacket of the career Grand Slam with his victory at Royal Liverpool.
Yet while the Player of the Year voting seems like a forgone conclusion, an argument – however farfetched – could be made for Martin Kaymer or Jimmy Walker.
Kaymer won The Players and U.S. Open by eight strokes and in theory could claim the FedEx Cup with a victory this week at East Lake; while Walker would be the season’s only four-time winner if he were to win the Tour Championship and would also likely cash the $10 million bonus.
“It would be Rory, but I’d probably wait until after this week to make my decision,” Ryan Palmer said.
Chris Kirk, who also would become a three-time Tour winner with a victory this week, conceded that this week’s big finish could make the vote for Player of the Year a little more interesting, but it probably wouldn’t change his mind.
“Possibly, I guess. But still, unlikely. To win three of the biggest tournaments of the year and to win all of them pretty comfortably, 11 top 10s, his whole body of work is still going to be better than whoever wins this week,” Kirk said.
It’s more a testament to McIroy’s dominance than the current relevance of the FedEx Cup, but to most players this week’s scramble for $10 million will not factor into the Player of the Year balloting.
“I appreciate the FedEx Cup and the importance to win this. Jimmy Walker winning four times and a FedEx Cup is a big deal, but two majors and a World Golf Championship, especially in the time he did it means a lot,” Mahan said.
It’s a much different scenario than what occurred last year, when Tiger Woods (who won the award), Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott all had legitimate chances to win the Nicklaus hardware depending on how things played out in Atlanta. In fact, this may be one of the most straightforward POY votes in recent years.
“The way (McIlroy) played during the summer is pretty spectacular. To do that at such a young age, you don’t like to compare but it’s Tiger-like,” Day said. “Since Tiger hasn’t been playing his best, this is pretty convincing.”
As for McIlroy, he had more immediate concerns this week with the FedEx Cup hanging in the balance, which along with a Masters title is the only thing he hasn’t accomplished in his young career.
“It’s been a good season for me,” he said. “It’s been consistent. I’ve had big wins. Like I said, I’d love to finish it off.”
Of course, “finish it off” is a reference to winning this week’s Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup, because it seems the Player of the Year race has already been decided.