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In naming Rory McIlroy Player of the Year, Tour players shunned history for money

September 12, 2019

“All politics are local,” a great Irish-American, the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, used to say. It means, among other things, if you take care of the people in your backyard, they will take care of you.

And that’s what happened this week when the lodge brothers evidently voted another great Irish-American, Rory McIlroy, as the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year. The winner was announced, but the vote tallies were not. And you thought you lived in a democracy!

Through their vote, the Tour players were sending a message to their biggest sponsors, the good people who back their two biggest events, the Players Championship and the FedEx Cup. Rory, you know, won both.

Did Brooks Koepka have a better wraparound golf year, as most ordinary fans would define better? Yes, without question — if your starting point is a romantic and historic attachment to golf’s four majors. Koepka’s elegant 2019 results line for the Big Four is already in the history books: a stroke behind Tiger at the Masters; a decisive win at the PGA Championship; a second-place finish at the U.S. Open, a fourth-place finish at the British Open. Even if he had not played in another event all year, that’s some year.

But the Tour players, in voting for McIlroy over Koepka, were shunning history in favor of money. That’s their prerogative. They are professional golfers, after all. “Show me the money” works as well for them as it does for anybody else, if not better. “Follow the money” does, too, when trying to figure out their motivations.

Rory McIlroy hits a tee shot during the 2019 Tour Championship. McIlroy won at East Lake and also claimed the $15 million bonus.
Rory McIlroy hits a tee shot during the 2019 Tour Championship. McIlroy won at East Lake and also claimed the $15 million bonus.
USA Today

The two biggest paydays on the Tour schedule are two Sundays owned by the PGA Tour: the final day of the Players Championship and the final day of the FedEx Cup. McIlroy earned $2.25 million at the former and $15 million at the latter.

What kind of message would the players be sending if they didn’t put their stamp on all that?

There’s one other factor at work, and that’s the popularity contest. Both players are (I imagine) well-liked by their peers, and, in their candor, both are interesting. But when Koepka downplays every other event except the majors, and diminishes the traditional role of The Long Warmup in his Tour routine, he becomes a challenging figure to the players. And the players are creatures of habit. They don’t like their methods to be challenged.

Interestingly, the PGA of America Player of the Year Award, based on a formula anybody can read about, did go to Koepka. (Points for victories as a starting point, but a player earns three times as many points for a major as he does for a regular Tour event.) The PGA’s tally — actually announced! — was 84 points for Koepka and 78 for McIlroy, who got 20 points for his Players win. That’s making a nod to the historic importance of the majors.

You can be sure (or nearly sure) that the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year Award will go to Koepka, because the writers have a natural connection to, and affinity for, the majors. They’re in our blood, in part because some of us are lucky enough to go to them. In our valuing of them, we are actually, and appropriately, taking our lead from Tiger Woods, from Tom Watson, from Jack Nicklaus, from Arnold Palmer, from Ben Hogan, from Bobby Jones. We’re not in this for the money. The holy number clinging to Big Jack — 18! — really has nothing to do with money.

And there was Jack on Wednesday, handing a shocked Rory McIlroy the Jack Nicklaus Award for being the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year at a casual lunch. That part was both odd and cool.

My own take on these matters is this: Whose year would you most want to have? Brooks would say Brooks. Rory would say Brooks.

By McIlroy’s own reckoning, Koepka had a better (wraparound) year, with two other wins, one in Korea, another in Memphis. In an interview with Golf Channel, the Northern Irishman who lives in South Florida said he distinguishes between a “great” year and a “historic” year. He had a great year. A historic year, he said, is one in which you win a major. Koepka had a historic year. Tiger, of course, did, too. McIlroy did not.

My own take on these matters is this: Whose year would you most want to have? That’s where my vote goes. Tiger would say Tiger; he wouldn’t trade his year for anybody else’s. He didn’t just win a major again, he won the Masters, the one that got this whole thing started for him. Brooks would say Brooks. Rory would say Brooks.

You could make an interesting case for Tiger. He wasn’t by any measure the most dominant player of the year, but he was the most impactful. Viewed that way, he is, if you want to use the language in a literal way, the player of the year. Yes, that would be a fanciful vote and choice, but I think you can defend it more than you can a vote that values money over everything else.

The Wednesday lunch was at the Bear’s Club, in Jupiter, Fla. McIlroy is a member there and Nicklaus founded the club. Nicklaus presented the award before the first iced-tea was poured. McIlroy seemed genuinely shocked. It would be hard to imagine him voting for anybody other than Koepka, based on his “great” versus “historic” definitions.

It’s also hard to imagine Koepka voting for anyone other than McIlroy. Last year, when Koepka did win, he told Dan Patrick, “I didn’t vote; I was too lazy. I could never vote for myself.” He said his vote last year would have gone to either Bryson DeChambeau or Dustin Johnson. That’s being at least half-funny. In 2018, he won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. He had one of the most historic golf years ever.

By the way, these votes, when they are debated and discussed, that’s all part of the fun. In 2011, GOLF Magazine named Rory McIlroy its Player of the Year. Not just in the male, professional division, but over everybody, including Yani Tseng, who won the British Open, the LPGA Championship. She played the world and won five other times. You could argue she should have received the award and many did. That’s good! Debate is good. He also told Patrick that he would vote next year. That is, this year. But we know he wouldn’t vote for himself, as he said. So does that mean he voted for Rory? Was he the tiebreaker? Weird! Fun! Discuss amongst yourselves.

I was curious to see if there is any language in the Player of the Year ballot that would guide players on how to vote, like a judge giving instructions to a jury. There’s not, but it is worth noting that under Koepka’s accomplishments, there’s no mention of his four top-4 finishes in the majors. Here’s a copy of the ballot, which the Tour shared with GOLF.com:

The 2019 PGA Tour Player of the Year ballot.
The 2019 PGA Tour Player of the Year ballot.
PGA Tour

PGA Tour spokesperson Laura Neal declined to say how many players voted this year but did say that in any given year participation ranges from 45 to 60 percent. Neal added that the Tour outsources the vote tabulation. She explained that all eligible voters — players who have played in at least 15 events — receive electronic ballots. The completed ballots go directly to the Tour’s accounting firm, Grant Thornton. Employees there tabulate the votes without Tour supervision and send the results to the Tour. The process is broadly similar to how Academy Award votes are tabulated.

In any event, Rory McIlroy is your PGA Tour Player of the Year. Tremendous person, who had a great and consistent season, earning himself a boatload of money. The lodge brothers, in their voting, revealed the value they hold dearest. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you should know it.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@golf.com.