ATLANTA – The people have spoken.
The message was delivered loudly, in fact, and with virtually no ambiguity in what is essentially a mandate between tradition and change, more of the same or something new, to keep with the election-season theme.
“Two majors. It trumps all else,” Rory McIlroy said when asked his thoughts on the ongoing Player of the Year debate between Jordan Spieth and Jason Day.
“Majors. Majors are big,” echoed Rickie Fowler.
Even Day, whose torrid run through the twilight of the 2014-15 season with four victories in his last six starts turned what had been a foregone conclusion into a curious debate, conceded a point that comes down to simple math.
“I still think it's Jordan. Everyone knows that here,” the Australian said when asked who should be the Player of the Year if he’s able to win the FedEx Cup.
For the players who represent the electorate in the Player of the Year race Spieth’s two major victories, and to a lesser extent his runner-up showing at the PGA Championship and tie for fourth at the Open Championship, are the ultimate arbiter.
“I feel like you got to go on majors and Jordan has been the best player in those tournaments this year,” McIlroy said.
There are outliers, those who view the current golf landscape in more macro terms and look beyond golf’s four biggest events and drill down into a system that attempts to quantify season-long success.
“If Jason Day wins the FedEx Cup he is the Player of the Year. To win the FedEx Cup you’ve had to win one of the [playoff] events,” Jason Bohn said at last month’s Barclays, which Day won by six strokes. “I think the FedEx Cup is a big determiner in our Player of the Year. It’s phenomenal the way Jordan Spieth has played in the majors, but you have to finish it off.”
Henrik Stenson was not as sure but still squarely on the fence, “Someone with the first letter of ‘J’ will win it,” he joked. “I would still wait until this week is over before I would put my final vote on that. It comes down to what happens this week.”
But as the Tour inches toward election day - voting will begin as soon as officials can electronically distribute the ballots after Sunday’s final round and ends on Oct. 1 at 5 p.m. ET - those types of esoteric opinions seem to be in short supply.
In a wildly unscientific poll of a dozen players this week at East Lake, Spieth is a heavy favorite to claim the Jack Nicklaus Award. Exit polling on Sunday may provide a different view if Day were to roll to his third postseason victory and the ultimate walk-off, but on the eve of the year’s final event the voting public has made up its mind.
This is neither an indictment of Day’s inspired play the last few weeks nor of Spieth’s performance outside of the Grand Slam bubble as much as it is an indication of where the Tour currently finds itself.
As hard as the Tour has tried to make the playoffs something more than the sum of its parts, the current Player of the Year conversation is as clear an indication as any that time is still marked one major at a time.
In the nine years since the Tour began its playoff experiment the importance of the postseason has steadily grown as evidenced by, if nothing else, participation.
With few exceptions, most notably Sergio Garcia’s decision to skip this year’s first two playoff events, players have supported the postseason with their feet, as the great communicator Ronald Reagan once opined.
Look no further than Tiger Woods’ decision last month to play the Wyndham Championship for the first time in his career in a last-minute effort to qualify for the playoffs as your paradigm of importance.
Its relative importance, however, remains well behind that of a major. Despite the lure of $10 million and a five-year Tour exemption, players didn’t grow up practicing 5-footers dreaming of one day hoisting the FedEx Cup.
“It takes a long time,” Tour commissioner Tim Finchem conceded. “The Players, in my view, took 25 years to get to where you can say it’s established.”
If Day wins the season-long lottery ticket and Spieth does go on to collect the Nicklaus hardware it won’t be the first time the rank and file has made the distinction between a good season highlighted by a timely run and a truly great year.
Last season McIlroy won the Player of the Year Award for the second time after winning the Open Championship and PGA Championship but not the FedEx Cup, or even a playoff event for that matter.
In 2008, Padraig Harrington didn’t even qualify to advance to the Tour Championship but collected the POY trophy after winning that season’s Open Championship and PGA.
Just three times in the playoff era, and not since 2010, has the FedEx Cup champion also won the Player of the Year Award.
There’s nothing wrong with the FedEx Cup that a few decades of history can’t fix. Nor is there anything wrong with acknowledging that while Day is having a memorable season Spieth has already had an unforgettable year