It matters little that he likes to play down the money he won at the end of the regular PGA Tour season by lifting the FedEx Cup at the Tour Championship last month.
It matters little that he likes to play down the money he won at the end of the regular PGA Tour season by lifting the FedEx Cup at the Tour Championship last month. Not only was Rory McIlroy’s utter domination of the final round of golf’s playoffs underlined by a stunning dismantling of the game’s most intimidating Goliath—Brooks Koepka—it was reaffirmation of a stellar year for the Ulsterman whose slight stature belies his oversized significance in the legion of players amongst whom he ranks.
Naysayers will be quick to pounce on that proclamation: hold your horses. It’s true that the Irishman hasn’t won a major title in five years; and yes, he did slump to an entirely-forgettable opening round at the Open Championship on his home course to crash out of the field. But, in your columnist’s opinion, those who insist, on the basis of that rationale, that McIlroy doesn’t deserve the player-of-the-year award on the PGA Tour, don’t have a leg to stand on.
It’s below the belt, but I can’t resist it: consider that Jordan Spieth, made less money that the couple of million dollars which Harry Diamond, McIlroy’s friend and caddy lapped up in 2019. That’s assuming Diamond makes ten percent of his player’s earnings, which is the norm. McIlroy encashed winner’s cheques at three events in 2019; and while none was a major championship, The Player’s Championship is very nearly one, and the Tour Championship won him the FedEx Cup for the second time in his career. Not that he didn’t figure in the mix in lesser tournaments either: notching up 14 top-ten finishes in his 19 starts. McIlroy also managed, within the space of a season, to banish demons which might have persisted, had he not put them to rest. That opening round at Portrush was followed by a stellar six-under that very nearly got him into the weekend and the drubbing by Brooks Koepka at the WGC St. Jude Classic was returned with interest at the Tour Championship.
At the end of the day, Koepka’s otherworldly tenacity at the Major Championships: he won the PGA Championship, finished tied-second, second and tied-fourth in the others, is the only factor that might leapfrog him above McIlRoy in the race for player-of-the-year honours. McIlroy hasn’t been reticent about his views on that perspective. “If the narrative becomes that the majors are the only important thing in golf, then that’s dangerous because are fans not going to care for the other 48 weeks of the year?” he said after winning the Tour Championship. For those who may not know there are two other contenders for the title. First up was Matt Kuchar, who won twice in 2019. Even though Kuchar looked ready to contend at a major, his best finish at one was tied—eighth at the PGA Championship.
Bringing up the rear, not surprisingly, was Xander Schaffele. Just the fact that his name rolls off people’s tongues as easily as it does is the most indicative of everything Schauffele has achieved in 2019. With two victories early in January, Schauffele kept his momentum throughout the year notching up six top-ten finishes and 14 top-25’s in his 21 starts. And let’s not forget that second place finish at the Masters Tournament. It’s even more commendable given that this was only Schauffele’s third full season on the PGA Tour.
The PGA of America already awarded its year-end honour to Koepka for the second year in a row: hardly surprising given that Koepka won the PGA Championship. It’s apples and oranges between McIlroy and him: the leader in scoring average and consistent Top-10 finishes, or performances in Major Championships? I can only think of 2011, when Luke Donald won even though he never won a major and added just one regular tour event on the tourney to his tally. How about David Duval, who, in the 1988 season, won four times, had the lowest scoring average, and made more money than any other player? Duval’s brilliance was obscured by Mark O’ Meara because he won, not one, but two Majors at age 41.
Is it time to re-examine the role of Major Championships like McIlroy has suggested? Not just the weightage and points accorded to the events, but re-assessing the scheduling in order to spread the events out more evenly through the year.
The results for the player-of-the-year will be out by the time you read this column again. McIlroy paid Koepka the ultimate compliment as they wound up their final round at the Tour Championship. The Irishman admitted that his play had gone up to another level just to be able to battle with the American. “We had a good chat heading up the 18th. I just said to him that he’s had a great season. He’s won another Major, he’s won three times. I just wanted to tell him he’s playing so good. He’s the top-ranked player in the world,” McIlRoy recounted in a recent interview.
What will their peers think of their performances, and which way will they vote? McIlroy for one, feels the award might go Koepka’s way, but at least he has one consolation. “…I know it’s going to sting for a bit, because he most likely will win the Player of the Year, but he didn’t win the FedExCup…”
(A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game)