With a third-round 62 and a Sunday stroll with a sheepish smile at the BMW, Tiger Woods put the Player of the Year debate to bed once and for all.
Unless Steve Stricker wins the Tour Championship by a dozen strokes and sweeps the fall series events, which is highly unlikely given the Wisconsinites affinity for deer-hunting season, PGA Tour headquarters should save the postage for balloting and just ship the POY hardware to Isleworth Country Club, c/o Woods, Tiger.
Asked following his Cog Hill cakewalk if he’d turned the POY race into another foregone conclusion, Woods, who has won the Jack Nicklaus Trophy nine out of the last 12 years, was coy but not cryptic.
“We’ll let the players vote on that,” Woods offered with a smile. “I'd say my name is up there on that list.”
Truth is, the only question that remained after Cog Hill was whether that special delivery should include the Comeback Player of the Year award as well.
Regardless of what happens next week at East Lake – a mathematical, albeit contrived, race for $10 million – it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine any player who overcame more in the last 15 months.
The facts are these: Woods finished second at last year’s Masters and had knee surgery to get him through the U.S. Open, where he limped and winced his way to an historic victory. A day later he underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL and the world later learned that he’d won that Open with a stress fracture to his left tibia.
In the weeks and months that followed Woods had to rebuild the muscle in his left leg which had atrophied and under the watchful eye of swing coach Hank Haney, adjust his swing to help relieve the pressure and torque he was placing on his left knee.
Woods returned to the Tour in February at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and has steadily resumed his assault on golf’s record books. His BMW blowout was his sixth victory this year – No. 71 on the big board, two behind Nicklaus’ career haul – and since missing the cut at the British Open, where Woods said all aspects of his game began to click, his line is a powerball special: 1-1-2-2-11-1.
“Coming back from an ACL surgery to have the year that he has had is just a great accomplishment,” Haney said in an e-mail to GolfChannel.com on Sunday.
Not everyone, however, is ready to give Woods the 2009 post-season award double. Although no one questions the scope of his accomplishments or the distance he had to travel since last June to reach them, the Comeback POY hardware has always gone to a player who, for one reason or another, faced the prospect of life without golf and battled their way back.
Among the most recent winners of the Comeback POY are Dudley Hart (2008), who took much of 2007 off after his wife, Suzanne, was diagnosed with a non-malignant tumor in her lung. He rebounded in ’08 to finish 12th in the final FedEx Cup standings.
Olin Browne got the nod in ’05, battling back from shoulder and back injuries to win that season’s Deutsche Bank Championship.
The question then that many players must ask is whether Woods’ comeback was from similar depths?
“He had a phenomenal year last year, better than almost any other player in the history of the game,” Stewart Cink said. “I just don’t think it’s in the spirit of the award. I mean, no disrespect to Tiger, it’s just tough for me to think of him as the Comeback Player of the Year.”
Cink’s point is valid. In 2008 Woods went 4-for-6, including that one-legged gem at Torrey Pines, didn’t finish worst than fifth place and was a three-putt at the 14th hole away from green jacket No. 5 at Augusta National.
By definition, it would be hard to characterize Woods’ six-victory 2009, a card that’s missing only a major championship, a “comeback” over a four-victory ’08.
“He has so many awards it probably doesn’t matter to him anyway,” Cink said.
And it may be a question that will likely be lost amid the Tour’s voting process for post-season awards.
Between the final meeting of the Player Advisory Council on Oct. 13 and the end of the season, the 16 PAC members and four player directors on the Policy Board, a group that includes Cink, will nominate up to three players for the Comeback award. The top 3 players who received nominations are placed on the official ballot and any Tour member who played at least 15 events will have 30 days to make their voice be heard.
Even if Woods is not among the top 3 players nominated, there is room on the ballot to write him in but it’s unlikely he would receive enough votes to secure the award as a “write in.”
Although Hart and Browne were clearly qualified for Comeback POY consideration, Stricker won the award in back-to-back years (2006 and ’07), which begs the question: How can one comeback from a comeback?
Stricker is one of the circuit’s most endearing players and his rally from the depths of a prolonged slump in 2006 was “Rudy-esque.” Prior to 2006, when Stricker finished inside the top 25 10 times and was 34th in earnings, he hadn’t completed a year inside the top 150 in earnings since 2002. He followed that with his first victory since 2001 the next year and a fourth-place finish in earnings. An improvement? Sure. But he had already re-established himself among the Tour elite.
Woods’ bid for the comeback award is also aided by a limited list of potential candidates. In fact, when pressed for a potential nominee Cink paused for a long moment before conceding that he could think of none.
On Sunday at Cog Hill, Woods compared his play in 2009 to those halcyon years of 2000 and 2006, and he alluded to the demons he wrestled with during his recovery last year.
“There was so many different things that I didn't know, and I hadn't played competitively since the (U.S.) Open. A lot of guys had played well, and I hadn't played at all. So there was a lot of uncertainty,” Woods said. “To come back and be, as I said, this consistent feels pretty good.”
Paul Goydos once astutely observed that Woods is, “the most underrated player ever.” It may stretch the bounds of reason and the definition of the award, but to ignore the physical and emotional toll of ACL surgery would be to cheapen the accomplishment. And that’s just not right.