Before the first tee shot split the hot, humid air last week at Plainfield Country Club an informal poll of players seemed to quickly and quietly put to rest any thought of an actual race for this year’s PGA Tour Player of the Year Award.
“It’s [Jordan] Spieth, isn’t it?” Paul Casey shrugged when asked who would get his nod for Player of the Year. “There’s no one else even close, is there? He’s won like $11 million already, it’s obscene.”
Casey was hardly alone in his assessment of the 22-year-old’s season, which includes four Tour victories, two major triumphs (Masters and U.S. Open) and, actually, $10.3 million in earnings.
It only adds to Spieth’s legend that he finished a putt outside the playoff that was won by Zach Johnson at the Open Championship and beat everyone not named Jason Day at Whistling Straits on his way to one of the most dominant major championship seasons of the modern era.
Although players will not vote on the Player of the Year candidates until after the Tour Championship later this month, most of those polled at The Barclays figured the Tour could box up the Jack Nicklaus Award and send it along to Dallas, c/o Spieth and save the postage for ballots.
Some players, however, paused a moment when asked if there was anything that could transpire during the FedEx Cup Playoffs that could change their minds regarding the POY vote.
“If someone goes four in a row it could change, but it would have to be one of the top guys,” allowed Casey.
A top player like, say, Day? “I think if Jason won three out of four and the [FedEx Cup], I think you’d have to think about it,” Casey said.
While some players did allow for a late playoff run, last Wednesday that option seemed wildly farfetched.
“It’s got to be [Spieth] because of the two majors. I mean, Jason Day is close because of how well he played in the majors, but when you actually win two I don’t see how anyone else can take that from you,” Greg Owen said.
Now fast-forward four days to a slightly different reality.
On Sunday, Day cruised to his third Tour title in his last four starts, lapping contenders that included the likes of Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson by six strokes. It was a field that no longer included Spieth, who missed his first cut since May.
In a tale of the tape, Spieth and Day’s seasons are not that dissimilar. The Australian also has four Tour titles, including his breakthrough major triumph last month at Whistling Straits.
Day also came within a putt at St. Andrews of making it into the playoff and began the final round at the U.S. Open tied for the lead before succumbing to the effects of vertigo at Chambers Bay.
By the time Day put the finishing touches on his victory at The Barclays on Sunday, Spieth’s landslide in the POY race had become something closer to a legitimate duel in some players’ minds.
“If Jason Day wins the FedEx Cup he is my Player of the Year,” Jason Bohn said on Sunday at Plainfield. “To win the FedEx Cup he’s had to win one of the events and to win this event [The Barclays] this is probably the strongest field in golf behind The Players. The Barclays in my opinion is the sixth major based on the strength of the field.”
As impressive as Day’s post-season victory was, the idea that he could clip Spieth at the wire for the Player of the Year hardware taps into a more esoteric debate regarding the importance of the post-season.
After eight years, the FedEx Cup playoffs appear to still be searching for an identity.
“What’s bigger, the playoffs or a major? If you win The Barclays does it count as a major, no? If Jason were to win three out of four playoff events and a major, maybe, but right now Jordan has it,” Owen said.
Rory McIlroy was in a similar position last season after winning two majors, as well as the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. The Northern Irishman failed to win the FedEx Cup, or a playoff event, but was voted Player of the Year in what, by most accounts (the Tour does not release vote totals), was a walkover.
That Billy Horschel, who won last year’s FedEx Cup, narrowly made it to the second post-season event after a relatively pedestrian year at least partially explains why McIlroy was such a clear-cut choice.
If Day continues to give the rank-and-file a reason to consider other options, Spieth may not have that same luxury.