Will Tiger Own the Year-End Award Season

By Rex HoggardSeptember 16, 2009, 9:51 pm

PGA TourWith 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.

Tiger Woods BMW Championship trophy
Tiger Woods added a sixth trophy to his collection on Sunday at Cog Hill with another 2009 victory. (Getty Images)

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.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”