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Five favorites for Player of the Year

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If we didn’t know any better, you’d swear the public really doesn’t matter to the PGA Tour, which continues to live in the dark ages when it comes to its year-end awards. Other sports rely on an objective source – usually a select group of indigenous media – to choose their top performers. The Tour puts the ballots in the hands of its players, which makes it something of a popularity contest. 

Other sports release complete results of the voting. Camp Ponte Vedra tells us only who won, details not included, which is why the announcements for best player, best rookie and most improved are largely ignored by the mainstream. Of course, those flaws were irrelevant when Tiger Woods was winning 10 POYs in 13 years, but today’s ultra-flat competitive landscape begs for full disclosure – and there’s no way we’ll get that. 

The Tour should have learned its lesson after Steve Stricker earned top-comeback honors in consecutive seasons (2006-07), which is theoretically impossible, or after winless Rickie Fowler beat out Rory McIlroy for the ’10 rookie award. This year’s POY vote is likely to be one of the closest and most intriguing ever: Webb Simpson (pictured above), Luke Donald, Keegan Bradley, Nick Watney and perhaps Stricker have legitimate portfolios. Too bad we won’t get a breakdown on the percentages or a list of the final tabulations.

Lest we forget, the identity of last year’s POY wasn’t clear until the final hole of the Tour Championship, which is obviously the case again this week. Here’s where I see everyone standing now.

1. Simpson – No question, he’s the favorite among the players with his two wins and 10 top-10 finishes. Three of those top-10s have come in the FedEx Cup playoffs, including a playoff victory in Boston, but I think the one-stroke penalty Simpson called on himself in New Orleans, where he lost in extra holes, will resonate strongly with his brethren. Nobody but Simpson saw his ball move on the 15th green. It ended up costing him the Zurich title – but could prove to be the difference between himself and the other candidates in the POY race.

2. Bradley – Yes, he’s the only major-championship winner in the bunch, and that counts for a lot, but two things are working against the kid: his inconsistency and his rookie status. Bradley has just four top-10s (two wins) and missed the cut in the first two postseason events. His 10 MCs overall don’t help his cause, but when you put yourself inside the mind of Joe Tour Pro, you can see a lot of guys giving Bradley their ROY vote and picking Simpson as their POY.

3. Donald – An absolute high-finish machine who has placed T-18 or better in 14 of his 17 starts. Donald is basically a lock if he wins this week in Atlanta, but so are a couple of others. He’s also the top-ranked player in the world, a guy who can steal some votes with his overall body of work. Definitely a distant third at this stage, but Donald came within a whisker of winning the Tour Championship last September and has to be on the short list of favorites this week.

4. Watney – He makes this list because he has a pair of victories, one of them a WGC triumph at Doral, but Watney’s best finish since winning in Philly in early July is a T-10 at The Barclays. Missed cuts at the U.S. and British Opens probably wouldn’t hurt other players as much as they hurt him. As is the case with Donald, a win this week vaults Watney to the top of the list. Three wins and nine top 10s would amount to more than any of his colleagues have accomplished.

5. Stricker – Clearly a longshot, but like any hardcore golf fan, the tour-pro constituency is likely to consider a household name more seriously than a first- or second-year player who came from deep left field. Stricker builds his argument on triumphs at the Memorial and John Deere, where his fairway bunker play on the 72nd hole ranks as my shot of the year, but there have been just three other top 10s – none of those three since early April. Stricker needs more than help to claim his first POY. He needs to be posing with that $10 million check early Sunday evening.