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Player-of-the-Year puzzle

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Sometime next month, ballots for the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year award will hit electronic mailboxes and, if an informal and highly unscientific straw poll of the circuit’s rank-and-file last week at East Lake is any guide, the collective may opt for an “all of the above” option.

Not since the pre-Tiger Woods era has the Tour’s POY race been this clouded or closely contested.

“Five or six guys had a great year but none of them had a standout year, so I really don’t know,” Phil Mickelson reasoned late Sunday at the FedEx Cup finale.

In Cliff’s Notes form, the leading candidates are Luke Donald, who currently leads the money list, won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and posted a mindboggling 13 top-10s; Webb Simpson, a two-time winner who also added a pair of runner-up showings and could overtake Donald for the money title if he plays a Fall Series event; Keegan Bradley, who won a major (PGA Championship) to go along with his Byron Nelson breakthrough; Bill Haas, who has just one victory this year (Tour Championship) but may get extra credit for winning the FedEx Cup; and Nick Watney, a winner in the spring (WGC-Cadillac Championship) and summer (AT&T National) who didn’t finish outside of the top 15 in his first five events of 2011.

When asked last week his thoughts on the POY race, Geoff Ogilvy, one of the circuit’s most thoughtful types, gazed blankly at your impromptu pollster and sighed, “Player of the Year is pretty interesting now more than it was for about the last 10 years. There's actually a discussion,” he said.

In East Lake exit polling, most players gave the POY nod to Donald, noting his machine-like performance on Tour this year as well as his record in Europe (two wins) and his stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the world ranking.

“Does (Donald) ever finish out of the top 3 or 4? I mean, every single week, he's there. Last week (at the BMW Championship), he went over par in the first round and he still finds a way to finish fourth,” Ogilvy said.

Since 1997, Woods has clipped all comers for the Jack Nicklaus Trophy 10 times, and on the rare occasions he didn’t win there was a clear-cut Plan B in the form of Mark O’Meara (two majors in 1998), Vijay Singh (nine wins in 2004), Padraig Harrington (two majors in 2008) and Jim Furyk (the FedEx Cup champion and a three-time winner last year).

Yet this year’s vote goes beyond a race that’s too close to call. For players, this year’s contest is a philosophical debate between the value of winning versus consistency.

In short, would you rather have Bradley’s year, complete with that life-changing week at Atlanta Athletic Club, or Donald’s?

“Part of it is consistency over the course of a year,” Charles Howell III said. “(But) winning is the most important thing out here . . . that’s a hard one, especially this year, but I think you have to take a hard look at Keegan. He won a major and that’s such a hard thing to do.”

However, Matt Kuchar – who, interestingly enough, was the only player with a mathematical chance to hoist the FedEx Cup without having won this year – had a different take. “Keegan Bradley, having won the PGA and having won another tournament as well, has thrown his hat in that conversation,” he said. “But I think Luke Donald being so consistent and taking over the No. 1 spot in the world and retaining it, proving that he's been the best player in the world.”

It is telling that a player’s take on this debate was so closely based on his own strengths and weaknesses.

“Consistency to me is always very impressive because it's hard to do that. It's not easy to win one week, but it's probably easier to win one tournament than it is to be consistent,” Ogilvy said. “It blows me away, maybe because it's never been me, but the people that play well every week are incredible. But saying that, we don't play golf to be consistent, we play golf to win big tournaments, so I guess the successful guy is the guy who wins big tournaments.”

Ultimately Donald’s road to the Player of the Year award may be influenced by timing – his lone Tour victory came in February – and a sign of the times in American golf.

When asked his thoughts on the POY race, Chez Reavie began rattling off statistics: “Nick (Watney) is up there, but I’d vote for (Simpson). Two wins and two second-place finishes, a boat load of top-10s. Every time he’s teed it up this year it seems like he could win . . .”

Reavie paused for a moment before finally asking, “What has Luke won this year?” Be it unfortunate timing or the WGC format, Donald’s Match Play victory is often overlooked.

Nor have Tour voters demonstrated an immunity to outside influences.

Last year’s Rookie of the Year award went to Rickie Fowler, who earned a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team but failed to win, over Rory McIlroy, who posted the year’s most-commanding performance (non-major division) to win the Quail Hollow Championship. Some speculated that McIlroy’s snub was player reaction from his decision to forgo membership in 2011.

Donald, who may not play again in the United States this season, could suffer a similar fate in 2011 through no fault of his own.

The Tour Championship may have decided the FedEx Cup, but the POY race may come down to a Fall Finish start (Simpson may play Disney and Watney is playing this week in Las Vegas).

Or maybe the esoteric debate will come down to what players truly value – consistency or major championships. It’s so close, not even CNN would call this race early.

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