In the Georgia dusk at last month’s Tour Championship, Rory McIlroy had just wrapped up another commanding performance at East Lake to claim the FedExCup and his third victory of the season when his voice turned oddly resigned.
“I know it's going to sting because [Brooks Koepka] most likely will win the Player of the Year [award], but he didn't win the FedExCup,” McIlroy said.
That McIlroy would be Koepka’s primary competition for the Jack Nicklaus Award was telling, but the Northern Irishman was hardly the only player at East Lake giving the early nod to Koepka.
Koepka and McIlroy had similar seasons. Both had three victories and finished the season first and second, respectively, on the money list, a measure that used to mean more before the Tour transitioned to points and playoffs.
But as many observers will recognize, not all victory hardware is created the same. While McIlroy’s three bottle caps – The Players, Canadian Open and Tour Championship – is an impressive threesome, Koepka’s collection of the CJ Cup, PGA Championship and WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational has the required curb appeal.
For Koepka this goes well beyond having a major high card. He became the fifth player to finish in the top five at all four majors in a season with his PGA victory, runner-up finishes at the Masters and U.S. Open, and a tie for fourth at The Open. A Grand Slam game that’s won four of the last 10 majors is Koepka’s identity.
Koepka was poised to win the Player of the Year award because of his major success, at least that was the commonly held opinion for many at the Tour Championship. But along the way to the electronic ballot box, some looked beyond the status quo. Although there’s no way to know how many Tour types feel this way since the circuit keeps voting totals a closely-held secret, what is known is that a majority of the players who voted came to a different conclusion.
This is the third time McIlroy has won the Jack Nicklaus Award, but this time around is vastly more intriguing than his previous accomplishments. In fact, it might be the most noteworthy vote on Tour in over a decade.
Compared to Koepka’s season, McIlroy was a model of consistency. In addition to his three wins, McIlroy missed just two cuts and finished in the top-10 and impressive 73 percent of the time. He began 2019 with seven consecutive top-10s, including a tie for eighth at the PGA and ninth at the U.S. Open. He also added a nondescript showing at the Masters and a missed cut at The Open to round out his Grand Slam season.
Even McIlroy acknowledged that the voting results were a shocker.
“Somewhat surprised,” he said in a conference call, "but very honored."
McIlroy has long been one of the Tour’s most well-spoken and thoughtful players and it didn’t take much prodding for the 30-year-old to address the major elephant in the room.
“Brooks has had an incredible year, an incredible two, three years,” McIlroy said. “I think this speaks volumes to what PGA Tour players feel is important. I think players don't just feel that four weeks a year is important. It's more than that. Why do we play 25 times a year if only four weeks are important?”
Coincidentally this statement vote occurred the same year the Tour transitioned to a new schedule that was billed as six months of championship golf that begins with The Players in March and concludes with the playoffs in August.
Wednesday’s announcement wasn’t revolutionary, but it did feel remotely historic for no other reason than the commonly held belief that the game’s best players are defined by what they do in the majors.
Tiger Woods described the concept with delightful brevity in 2008 when he played just half the year but won six events including the U.S. Open on one leg. The same season, Padraig Harrington won just twice on the PGA Tour, both were majors.
Q. Did you vote for Paddy [for Player of the Year]?
Tiger: I did actually.
Tiger: He won two [majors].
Q. Is that all it comes down to?
The Player of the Year vote is often something of a popularity contest, but this season’s outcome feels more like a statement. McIlroy’s victory addresses the pseudo major status of The Players as well as one of the most consistent years on Tour in a decade. It also creates countless water-cooler debates: Would you rather have Rory's season or Brooks' season?
Or, worded another way, would McIlroy rather have a season like he did 2019 or 2014, when he also won three times, but with triumphs at The Open and PGA Championship?
“Every year is different,” he acknowledged sheepishly. “I’ve already had a year like 2014 and I might have a year like that again. I’m happier with my game [now]. Feel like I’m a better player than I was in 2014.”
And, once again, but with a different resume, Player of the Year.