NORTON, Mass. – In between high-fives and unrestrained cheers Steve Stricker contemplated the question.
Actually, he tried his best to split his attention between the topic at hand - who would get his nod for PGA Tour Player of the Year, and the LSU vs. Wisconsin game, which was won by his beloved Badgers.
“I don’t know. Who would you vote for?” Stricker shot back while anxiously watching the closing minutes of the Wisconsin game.
It was a common response to a strangely difficult question, at least by Tour standards.
Most years, players have already made up their minds – or at the least penciled in the leader in the clubhouse – by the time the Tour arrives in New England for this week’s Deutsche Bank Championship. But that status quo is largely a nod to Tiger Woods’ dominance, as well as the play in recent years by the likes of Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.
But whether it’s the newfound parity that has gripped the game since Woods began his competitive swoon or the FedEx Cup, which in its 10th year has taken on a unique importance to players, this year’s race for the Jack Nicklaus Award is very much in play – at least for two players.
The two leading candidates for Player of the Year, and to be honest the only two candidates, are Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, but a brush of the resume doesn’t exactly reveal a clear front-runner.
Johnson won a major, the U.S. Open, and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational the following week; while Day has three victories: The Players, WGC-Dell Match Play and Arnold Palmer Invitational.
When pressed, most of those players polled by GolfChannel.com at TPC Boston gave the nod, however slightly, to Johnson.
“You’d probably lean to the guy who has a major, and I’m sure Jason Day would rather have a major,” Stricker said. “But you can’t snuff The Players and the WGC and the extra win. It’s like a flip of the coin there.”
A further examination of the two players’ seasons would also suggest that Johnson would have a narrow advantage with three events remaining in the season.
Johnson has two more top-10 finishes (12) than Day, and is second in strokes gained tee to green while the Australian is 54th in that category; but Day is first in strokes gained putting to DJ’s 44th rank on the greens.
“[Johnson] seems to play good every single week,” Russell Knox said. “One of them is going to win again the next three weeks, but right now my vote would be Dustin Johnson.”
But then Day has earned more ($7.9 million) than Johnson ($7.3 million) and leads the American in the FedEx Cup race, with the duo ranked second and third, respectively.
If the uncertainty of those polled is any indication, it will be that FedEx Cup list that ultimately decides the Player of the Year race.
If either player were to win one of the final three events and take the season-long race that would give them the advantage in the balloting, which will occur after the Tour Championship later this month.
If recent form is any indication there’s no clear-cut leader on that front, either.
Day finished tied for fourth place in the playoff lid lifter, five strokes ahead of Johnson. But Johnson is currently tied for fifth place at TPC Boston after a second-round 66 despite a double bogey-7 to finish his round on Saturday; while Day narrowly made the cut and is tied for 62nd.
“I would go Dustin, right now,” Brendan Steele said. “Those two guys have separated themselves from everybody else, for sure. But it depends on the next three weeks. It could change.”
That tie breaker, however, may depend on FedEx Cup front-runner Patrick Reed, who won The Barclays and is currently tied for seventh at the Deutsche Bank Championship.
If neither Johnson nor Day were to win the FedEx Cup, the ultimate tipping point may come down to the value of winning The Players, which is considered in some circles the game’s “fifth major,” compared to a proper Grand Slam.
“The Players is a pretty big win. I don’t know, that’s a tough question,” Stricker said.
It’s an esoteric debate that hasn’t come up since 2013 when Woods won The Players, along with four other Tour titles but no majors, and was voted the Player of the Year over Adam Scott, who won only twice but that list included the Masters and The Barclays.
For now, players are content to let the rest of the season be the ultimate arbiter of success, hoping that one of the leading men separates himself over the playoff stretch.
“I think it would come down to the last tournament,” Steele said.
As tough as the decision seems to be for most players, it might be more accurate to say those casting votes are hoping it comes down to the last tournament.