With only 21 days before the start of the PGA Tour’s new wraparound season, there isn’t enough time for any of those long-winded, cringe-worthy speeches. No, sir. This will be the most frenetic awards ceremony in history, so cue the get-the-heck-off-the-stage music.
BEST PLAYER IN A LEADING ROLE
Winner: Rory McIlroy
It wasn’t just the three wins in a row, though hose back-to-back major titles certainly were memorable. For the first time, at age 25, McIlroy finally embraced the title of golf’s leading man.
BEST PLAYER IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Winner: Rickie Fowler
The 25-year-old became the third player in history to post top-5s in all four majors. Unlike Jack and Tiger, though, Rickie walked away empty-handed.
Nominees: The Players, Colonial, PGA Championship
Winner: PGA Championship
On the final day, Rory, Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and Rickie were all in the mix for the title, with Furyk, Ernie Els, Jimmy Walker and Hunter Mahan among those cracking the top 10. It truly was Glory’s Last Sh … ah, forget it.
Nominees: Adam Scott-Jason Dufner playoff at Colonial, WGC-Match Play final, PGA Championship Sunday
Winner: WGC-Match Play final
BEST CLUTCH PUTT
Winner: Martin Kaymer
Kaymer’s lead had been trimmed from three shots to one by the time he stood on the famed 17th. His tee shot spun back down the slope and came to rest about a foot from the bulkhead, leading to an awkward chip that came up 30 feet short. The left-to-right-breaking putt went up and over a hill and slammed into the back of the cup – the par that preserved the win and gave Kaymer his first victory in the States since the 2010 PGA.
Winner: Erik Compton
How fitting that a two-time heart-transplant recipient recorded his best-ever finish (and told his incredible story nationally) at the more grueling test in golf.
BEST BREAKOUT STAR
Nominees: Jimmy Walker, Patrick Reed, Billy Horschel
Winner: Patrick Reed
Love him or loathe him, fans now certainly know him. After a victory at the Wyndham last August, P-Reed set the 54-hole scoring record en route to a win at the Humana, then topped an elite field at Doral, where he made even bigger news by declaring himself a “top-5” player. Alas, he has been very cautious with the media ever since.
Winner: Tiger Woods
After going under the knife in late March, the former world No. 1 missed two majors before surprising everyone, even himself, with a return at his own event in late June. He missed the cut in D.C., wasn’t competitive at the Open, reinjured himself at Firestone, labored through two rounds at the PGA, parted ways with his swing coach and now has shut it down until December. Yep, just another ho-hum year for golf’s most fascinating player.
OK, enough awards. Everybody out. The after-party is at Rory’s waterfront crib.
First rookie: Justin Thomas. He’s the same age (21) as Jordan Spieth, whom he beat out for college player of the year in 2012. Spieth has gone on to enjoy tremendous success in the big leagues, and there’s no reason why Thomas won’t do the same. During his one-year apprenticeship on the Web.com circuit, he won once and finished in the top 10 in six other events. The preeminent ball-striker will be on ’boards early and often in this new season.
First-time major winner: Sergio’s time is coming, whether the golf gods want it to or not, but Jason Day is the most likely to break through next year – assuming, of course, that he returns to full health. Yes, the Aussie seemed poised for a monster year after winning the WGC-Match Play in February, but injuries to his thumb and back stalled his momentum. This is a guy with seven top 10s in majors since 2010, including a T-4 at this year’s U.S. Open, and he’s too solid from tee-to-green not to nab one soon.
Don’t like it at all, to be honest, and in many ways it’s related to my main beef with the FedEx Cup. The premise is flawed. All along, the Cup has been billed as the race to determine a season-long champion, except that’s not what the FedEx Cup does at all. With its current points structure, the Cup identifies two very different things: 1.) the playoff field, or the 125 players who keep their card for next season; and 2.) the player who gets hot at the right time in the playoffs. Rory McIlroy was the best during the regular season. Billy Horschel won the postseason component. Just call it like it is. These Web.com Tour Finals, and specifically the priority rankings, also attempt to equate season-long performance and “playoff” results but they, too, should be viewed separately.
Let’s use Blayne Barber and Tom Hoge as examples. Barber won a tournament and finished sixth on the Web.com regular-season money list. Hoge had two top 10s and finished 65th in earnings. Barber has one top 10 in the Finals, a T-6 at last week’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship. Hoge also has one top 10, a solo third at the Chiquita Classic. Barber (with a win, five other top 10s and nearly $270,000 in earnings) is No. 10 on the priority rankings. Hoge (with no wins, three top 10s and $72,000 in earnings) is No. 11.
How is that bottom-heavy system possibly fair to guys who traveled the country for 20-plus events and battled for $33,000 paychecks? The 50 players who earn the most money during the entire year (including both the regular season and the Finals) should get their cards. Simple.
Despite Paul McGinley’s insistence that there will be no hard feelings between Rory and G-Mac – whose lawyers are currently brawling in court – it’s hard to envision them together for more than a session at Gleneagles, if at all. Instead, the team we’d most like to see is Rory-Sergio. They are pals, both are in form, and Sergio thrives in this competition (16-8-4). On the U.S. side, a Rickie-Phil tag team has the potential for some fireworks, especially if Lefty and Keegan misfire early. Then again, it’s entirely possible that Tom Watson will ignore all outside advice and match players with dissimilar games and combustible personalities. As a writer, I’ll be rooting for that disastrous scenario.
Expecting about a four-point loss for the U.S. – somewhere in between the Medinah nail-biter (14.5 to 13.5) and the K Club massacre (18.5 to 9.5). The Europeans have better players at the top, better vibes in the event (won five of last six) and better support with the home crowd. Anything can happen during a three-day match-play competition with 24 of the world’s best players, of course, but if the home squad jumps out to a comfortable lead after Day 1, this thing is ovah. Predicted final score: Europe 16.5, U.S. 11.5.
Breakout star: Hideki Matsuyama. Surprised that he was unable to capitalize on his Memorial victory (no top 10s since), but this is a big-time talent with all of the necessary tools to be a multiple winner every season on Tour.
Fading star: Jason Dufner. Reportedly scheduled to return to competition next month, but the neck injury that forced Duf out of the PGA will linger for the rest of his playing career. When talking to him at Valhalla, he wasn’t just disappointed and frustrated. He was also scared – two bulging disks is a career-threatening ailment. It’s a shame too, because his popularity has surged in recent years, but already 37 he likely has one eye on the endgame.
@RyanLavnerGC Biggest Surprise Player of 2014— Marty Flanagan (@Flans99) September 16, 2014
Let’s not forget where Rickie was a year ago – lost with his swing, at home during the Tour Championship, an afterthought for the Presidents Cup. He hooked up with Butch Harmon during the offseason, shelved the Crayola outfits and cut his hair, and after a few lean months transformed into a player who recorded a top 5 in all four majors, who closed out the year with eight top 15s in nine starts and who will play in his second Ryder Cup next week. The only thing he needs now: more titles.
This is one man’s list of the 25-and-under crop as it currently stands, not a projection of future success:
1. Rory McIlroy, age 25
2. Rickie Fowler, 25
3. Patrick Reed, 24
4. Jordan Spieth, 21
5. Hideki Matsuyama, 22
6. Victor Dubuisson, 24
7. Russell Henley, 25
8. Brooks Koepka, 23
9. Harris English, 25
10. Matteo Manassero, 21
Seems like forever ago that Spieth had a two-shot lead with 11 holes to play at the Masters. The 21-year-old told the AP’s Doug Ferguson last week that he cracked his driver head at The Players (where he had a share of the 54-hole lead) and hasn’t been able to find the right combination since. He lost some distance off the tee, and it’s a big reason why he has recorded but one top 10 in a full-field event since May. Obviously he’ll be fine once he gets his equipment squared away, but his oh-fer in 2014 serves as yet another reminder that there’s a wide gulf between every-week contender and prolific winner.