Rory vs. Brooks: In POY debate, the real question is one of major significance

Brad Vest, The Memphis Commercial Appeal

Rory vs. Brooks: In POY debate, the real question is one of major significance

19th Hole

Rory vs. Brooks: In POY debate, the real question is one of major significance

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The troops in tin foil hats have been marching across the Twitter battlefield this week, hollering about vote rigging and dark arts being practiced by those in power. Seldom has golf been more reflective of the nation at large.

Their Archduke Ferdinand call to arms came when Brooks Koepka was denied the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year award. A vote among players instead bestowed the honor on Rory McIlroy. (Hey, no one said golf Twitter spars over matters of real substance!)

As with most arbitrary and ultimately meaningless awards, there’s plenty to criticize here. Like the fact that vote totals remain secret. A popular theory aired on Twitter suggests the Tour is embarrassed by how few players bothered to cast ballots. Releasing the vote percentage won by each nominee would resolve that, but could in turn discomfit Matt Kuchar and Xander Schauffele, the two players needlessly added to create a four-man ballot in what was very obviously a two-man race.

So instead we get a winner without the result. That leaves supporters of Koepka feeling their man has been slighted and gives oxygen to the flat earthers of golf Twitter who consider every development with which they disagree as evidence of some malfeasance by the Tour.

Had I a POY vote, it would have been cast for Koepka. There are a handful of tournaments that matter most in professional golf, and his record last season in the majors — T-2, Win, 2, T-4 — surpassed all others. But much of the faux outrage on social media seemed based on the fatuous notion that no reasonable case could be made for a McIlroy win.

McIlroy’s season — wins at the Players Championship, the FedEx Cup, and the RBC Canadian Open, plus 14 top-10 finishes and a bushel of stats that suggest he might also walk on water — would be a career for most of the players voting on this award. The crux of why many folks consider McIlroy undeserving is his performance in the majors.

Except, he won one. (Lighting the fuse here…)

When I tweeted that McIlroy winning the award reinforced the idea of the Players being on par with the other four majors, the response was predictable:
“It really isn’t.”
“Couldn’t be more wrong.”
“Nope.”
“Utter nonsense.”
I admit that I had not considered these compelling rebuttals before making that argument.

Yet the Players has a stronger field every year than any major. A winners roll call includes plenty of hall of famers. It has accumulated as much historical stature as the Masters had by 1979. It is played on an iconic golf course — not one particularly to my tastes, but iconic nonetheless. And of course, the realpolitik: every other governing body in the game conducts a major championship, except the PGA Tour.

There are two arguments against the Players as a major: a geographic one and a childish one.

I agree that there’s an imbalance in having four of golf’s five biggest events in America. But they are. Many tournaments in other countries have been contested longer than the Players — heck, longer than the Masters and PGA Championship too, if we’re counting — but for various reasons none have the present-day standing of the Players. That’s reality.

The other reason for dismissing this argument is a peevish pushback against the over-eager marketing by the Tour, which clearly wants to see its flagship event elevated. It’s a flimsy rationale, but undeniably a strain in this debate. And it’s this question — Is the Players one or isn’t it? — that really lies at the heart of the POY kerfuffle. In my view, McIlroy’s victory at the Players is equal to Koepka’s at the PGA Championship. It’s not enough to tip my vote, but it sure makes for a closer contest than the Brooks Brigade would have you believe existed.

If there was a deciding factor in this vote, perhaps it was Koepka’s mien. He rolls like a cocksure high school quarterback, stuffing weaklings in lockers. He has no qualm in calling out slowpoke players. He knows he’s better than (almost) all of his peers, and doesn’t lack the confidence to show it. That’s probably not conducive to winning an anonymous vote among guys who know they’ll never have to account in public for how they pulled the lever.

This Player of the Year award got more attention than usual, and much more than it deserved. Winning it doesn’t burnish McIlroy’s season any more than not winning diminishes Koepka’s. In the end, it proved just one thing: that a clumsy lack of transparency at Tour HQ serves only those who peddle mischievous tin foil hat theories. This was an award with no winners.

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