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Player-of-the-Year race still open, but one man has a big lead

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A byproduct of the PGA Tour’s condensed schedule is a time crunch that’s just now beginning to be felt.

Although the circuit still has a major, World Golf Championship and three new-look playoff events remaining on its docket, for those who want to leave the ultimate mark on the 2018-19 season it’s getting late early, as Yogi Berra once famously mused.

Normally the Player-of-the-Year debate lingers well into the post-season, but that conversation has become surprisingly short even with a one-quarter of the season remaining thanks to the play of Brooks Koepka.

Mr. Chill might allow slights, be they real or perceived, drive him, but his body of work this season is impossible to overlook or underestimate. In 14 starts he’s won twice, a list highlighted by his victory at last month’s PGA Championship, and he has six top-10 finishes, including runner-up showings at the Masters and last week’s U.S. Open.

Even with the Tour’s reinvented schedule the majors matter the most and Koepka’s Grand Slam performance is second to none.

Gary Woodland was better than him at Pebble Beach, but over the long haul, Koepka’s quest to win the Jack Nicklaus Award for the second consecutive season has become this season’s benchmark.

Koepka is one of four players this season to have two victories on Tour, but his hand includes a major “high card” to go along with his near-misses at Augusta National and Pebble Beach.

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Koepka isn’t a lock to win the award just yet and in recent years players have placed added value on the FedExCup champion, but the potential scenarios that could see another player emerge as the frontrunner are few.

Tiger Woods, whose Masters victory would certainly include a sentimental vote for the Player of the Year award, would vault into the lead with a victory at next month’s Open Championship. But following last week’s showing at a chilly U.S. Open, the Northern Ireland venue is probably not a perfect fit for the 43-year-old medical miracle.

“When it's cold like this, everything is achy. It's just part of the deal,” Woods admitted at Pebble Beach, where he finished tied for 21st.

More likely options for Woods would be at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational or a repeat at the Tour Championship, which will both be played in warmer conditions and could easily boost his profile over Koepka.

Rory McIlroy would also move to the top of the list with a victory at Royal Portrush, which will be as close to a home-game major as the Northern Irishman will ever enjoy. Following his victory at The Players Championship and this month’s RBC Canadian Open, he could also make for a tougher decision if he were to win the remaining World Golf Championship or his second FedExCup title.

The bigger outliers in the Player-of-the-Year fray are Matt Kuchar and Xander Schauffele. Both have two victories this season but Schauffele, winner of the 2017 Tour Championship, is better suited to make a run at Koepka.

Along with his victories at the WGC-HSBC Champions and Sentry Tournament of Champions, Schauffele finished runner-up at the Masters and was third last week at the U.S. Open.

Gary Woodland and Dustin Johnson could also join the conversation, but would need to finish the season with a flurry following victories at the U.S. Open and WGC-Mexico Championship, respectively.

But if the potential cast still has a modicum of daylight it’s impossible to ignore Koepka’s advantage and the fact that he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down in recent weeks.

The Tour’s new schedule has created a sense of urgency for everyone, from those looking to simply finish inside the top 125 and maintain their status on Tour to players looking to make up ground in the steady march to East Lake, but in the Player-of-the-Year race, it feels like Koepka has distanced himself pretty well.

Yogi had it right – it’s getting late early.