The Player of the Year Should Remind Us That Golf Is a Game

December 16, 2015

A reader wanted to know the criteria for my Player of the Year award. “How many wins are required? Do you have to win a major? Do you factor in performance metrics — i.e., scoring average, strokes-gained stats, overall driving, etc.?”

Answer: None, no and no.

To be clear, I don’t actually give out a Player of the Year award, if by “award” you mean a plaque or a crystal bowl that looks good in a golfer’s trophy room. My POY is more of a “virtual” award, as it costs me nothing to produce and can be shared on Twitter. Last year’s recipient was PGA Tour player Ben Crane. Before that: Nobody. (This is a relatively young award.)

Anyway, the criteria are explicitly stated in the bylaws: The award shall be granted to the professional or amateur golfer who best expresses the true spirit of the Ancient Game through a single act or series of acts, the impact of which is to remind us that golf is, after all, a GAME, and not a soul-destroying occupation such as beet farming or sportswriting. The motto on our coat of arms, if we had one, would be the words that Tom Watson spoke to Jack Nicklaus on the 16th tee at Turnberry during their famous Duel in the Sun: This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Enough with the preliminaries. This year’s finalists are John Peterson, Phil Mickelson, Lydia Ko and Matt Jones.

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Ko is a compelling nominee despite winning her first major and four other LPGA events, vaulting to number one in the world, winning the money title and Rolex Player of the Year honors, and capturing a season’s-end million-dollar bonus. Lyds, as she is known, accomplished these unprecedented feats while maintaining a blithe demeanor appropriate for an 18-year-old girl — which is what she happens to be. If she hadn’t ditched the lab-assistant spectacles for contacts, she’d have won my award in a saunter.

Peterson, by way of contrast, caught the committee’s attention with one spontaneous act of golf-movie fandom. Playing horribly at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, the 26-year-old former NCAA champ opened his final round with a Happy Gilmore-style, two-step-and-whack tee shot. “I was just trying to get 20 more yards,” he told a PGA Tour official, possibly with a wink. Peterson was a POY finalist last year for a post-round remark (“It was a six- or seven-footer, it wasn’t life-threatening”) describing, not a hard-to-read putt, but an alligator he had pushed into a pond with a rake.

Taking cinema homage to a whole new level was Jones, winner of this year’s Australian Open. In contention during the third round of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Jones yanked his tee shot on the par-4 9th hole onto the carpeted deck of an elevated hospitality tent. Channeling Tin Cup’s Roy McAvoy — and with cast member Gary McCord providing live commentary for CBS — Jones elected to play his shot from where it lay, thrilling his half-soused gallery and millions of TV viewers. His wedge shot rocketed off the deck (cheers) and landed pin-high in a collar of deep rough (louder cheers). “It was crazy,” Jones said. “There was a lot of cameras clicking, and I just had to deal with it because nobody is going to be able to control a crowd like that. So I just hit my shot.”

Great stuff, but not quite Player of the Year material. Jones would have had a much harder shot if he’d taken a free drop at the foot of the skybox. In other words, he wasn’t actually reminding us that golf is a game. He was making a reasoned, professional judgment that a clean, level lie afforded him the best opportunity to avoid a big number. Still, it was awesome.

But now, having diminished three of the four finalists, it’s time to open the envelope. [Sound of paper tearing.] The 2015 Player of the Year is …

… obvious, I guess, since I already named my finalists. The award goes to Phil Mickelson for his performance at the PGA Championship. Mickelson, you may not remember, yo-yo’d his way around Whistling Straits on his way to an 18th-place finish, filling his scorecard with circles, double-circles, squares, double-squares, triangles, footnotes and marginal notes — along with an occasional par — and providing the classic summation, “I did the hard things very well and the easy things not so well.”

But Lefty didn’t win Player of the Year in the interview room. He clinched it during the second round when he commandeered a kid’s cardboard toboggan and slid down a sand dune to the next tee, grinning like a teen at Six Flags.

As I wrote at the time, “Mickelson didn’t shoot the lowest 72-hole score at Whistling Straits, but he played charismatic, impossible-to-ignore golf in front of thousands of sunburned spectators and an international TV audience that expects miracles whenever Phil wades into knee-deep rough with a mad gleam in his eyes.”

I could have simply written, “He played.”