Two days before he began play in the Tour Championship at East Lake, the question was posed to Rory McIlroy:
If he were able to win the FedEx Cup, would it be enough to put his name in the discussion for PGA Tour Player of the Year, an honor practically conceded to Brooks Koepka before the season-ending event.
Here’s what McIlroy said at the time, admitting it sounded like he was making a case for himself:
“If I won this week and won the FedExCup, then, yes. I’d have three wins, the same as Brooks. Obviously, Brooks won a major and competed in all the other ones as well, but … it goes back to what’s the Player of the Year rewarding? Is it rewarding a few weeks, or … if I were to play well or win this week, it would be my 14th top-10 out of 18 or 19 events. I feel like I’ve been very consistent.
“But if that were the case and I wasn’t to win, I would completely understand if people went that way.”
Now, $15 million and a second FedEx Cup trophy richer, McIlroy has made a strong case for his first PGA Tour Player of the Year trophy. In most years, what he did this season would be enough. But he’s right, the vote will probably go to Koepka for the second straight year.
When the two players shook hands Sunday on the 18th green at the end of the FedEx Cup season, they congratulated each other on their respective performances. They separated themselves over the course of the PGA Tour schedule. Though Tiger Woods’ victory at the Masters in April was the emotional and historical touchstone, Koepka and McIlroy were the best players.
Who most deserves the Player of the Year award?
Koepka, in what feels like a close split decision.
More than ever, the sport is defined by the major championships and that is where Koepka excelled again. It is also where McIlroy did not.
Consider Koepka’s major championship record this year:
- T2 at the Masters, where he came within a swing of potentially stealing Woods’ thunder;
- A victory at the PGA Championship, outdueling Dustin Johnson at Bethpage Black;
- Second place at the U.S. Open, where he pushed Gary Woodland to the limit at Pebble Beach;
- And, a T4 at the Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
Koepka was 36-under par in the majors, 22 strokes better than anyone else. Only five players beat him in all four majors. In the modern era, only Jack Nicklaus, Jordan Spieth and Woods have, like Koepka, finished in the top four in every major in the same season.
Contrast that to McIlroy’s major championship record this year:
- T21 at the Masters, where he never challenged as he tried again to complete the career Grand Slam;
- T8 at the PGA but he was 15 strokes behind Koepka after 36 holes;
- T9 at the U.S. Open where McIlroy stayed in the top 10 through the week but never made a serious run at the lead;
- Missed cut at the Open Championship where, perhaps feeling the massive weight of a nation’s expectations, McIlroy slapped his opening tee shot out of bounds and shot 79 at Royal Portrush before an inspiring second-round 65 left him one stroke outside the cut line.
In two memorable head-to-head meetings, Koepka smoked McIlroy in the final round on his way to winning the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational while McIlroy evened the score by outplaying a shaky Koepka on Sunday to win the Tour Championship.
Interestingly, McIlroy took the lessons he learned from Koepka in Memphis and applied them at East Lake.
The lone negative for McIlroy is the fact he has now gone five seasons without winning a major championship. He doesn’t need reminding.
“Brooks went out there in Memphis and shot 65 and just basically dominated the tournament, dominated me. And I realized if I want to become the dominant player in the world again, I need to be more like that,” McIlroy said. “I guess that’s the ultimate compliment I can give Brooks is (Sunday) I wanted to be a little bit more like him.”
Where McIlroy builds his Player of the Year case is on his overall body of work this season. He won three times including the Players Championship and, as he correctly pointed out, he had 14 top-10 finishes in 19 starts.
McIlroy won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest stroke average and he led the tour in strokes gained total, strokes gained off the tee and strokes gained tee to green. No one hit the ball better than McIlroy this year and for those who consider his putting to be a weakness, he was T24 in strokes gained putting, his biggest improvement in any statistical category.
The lone negative for McIlroy is the fact he has now gone five seasons without winning a major championship. He doesn’t need reminding. When the Masters rolls around next April he will share the focus with Woods and Koepka.
That’s a nice thought as the offseason – brief as it may be – sets in here.
Rory McIlroy’s consistency makes a strong case for player of the year. Photo: JD Cuban, Copyright USGA
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