Uncertain who's the PGA Tour player of the year? Don't be, it's Jon Rahm and here's why
On Tuesday, the PGA of America announced that Jon Rahm had won its Player of the Year award. This was hardly a surprise since the PGA of America honor is based strictly on a points system, and Rahm’s numbers were pretty overwhelming.
The 26-year-old Spaniard only won once during 2020-21 PGA Tour season, but that victory was in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he birdied the last two holes to claim his first career major. There aren’t any style points baked into the PGA of America formula, but it is worth noting how he won, if only un-officially. Notably, Rahm finished in the top 10 in five of the six majors that were part of this extended COVID-ravaged season. Moreover, he finished in the top 10 in 15 of the 22 tournaments he entered. By comparison, no one else on tour had as many as 10.
In addition, Rahm won the PGA of America's Harry Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average on the season (69.3). Oh, and he finished first on the season-long money list with $7,705,933 in earnings.
It’s also worth remembering that Rahm got zero points for his performance at the Memorial, where he led by six shots after three rounds only for PGA Tour officials to greet him behind the 18th green, tell him he had tested positive for COVID and require him to withdraw from the tournament without playing the final round. The difference between Rahm and runner-up Bryson DeChambeau in the PGA of America POY points race (75 to 70) would have been another 10 points if Rahm had gone on to win that weekend.
By any objective measure, Rahm was the best player on tour during the 2020-21 tour season. Patrick Cantlay had a superb year, winning four times (sort of, more on that in a minute), beating DeChambeau in a dramatic six-hole playoff at the BMW Championships and hanging on to beat Rahm (again, sort of) in the Tour Championship.
Next to be decided is the subjective award for player of the year, one decided by a vote of PGA Tour members who played at least 15 times during the year. Tabulated by officials at tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, voting closes Friday afternoon at 5 p.m.
By any subjective measure the winner should be … Rahm again. Actually, even more so than in the objective points vote.
The reason is simple: performance in major championships. As previously mentioned, Rahm won the U.S. Open and finished in the top-10 four other times. Cantlay is a wonderful story, having overcome a serious back injury that nearly ended his career before it really started to be one of the top players in the world. His newly minted nickname, “Patty Ice,” fits and will no doubt be heard frequently during the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits later this month—which will be cool, very cool.
But Cantlay would be the first one to tell you his record in major championships is abysmal. He has played in 19 of them during his career and has a total of two top-10 finishes—a T-9 at the Masters in 2019 and a T-3 behind Brooks Koepka’s runaway at the 2019 PGA. His top finish at a major during the 2020-21 season was a T-15 at the U.S. Open … the one Rahm won. Sorry, you can’t be player of the year with a record like that in the majors—especially when you had six cracks at them.
Cantlay might not even deserve the second spot. Truth is, the runner-up to Rahm in the PGA Tour member vote actually should be Collin Morikawa. After winning the PGA Championship last summer in the 2019-20 season, Morikawa claimed a second career major during the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in July. This came four months after winning a World Golf Championship event. Impressive stuff for a 24-year-old who only turned pro in June 2019.
After Morikawa should come either Cantlay or DeChambeau. The only reason I’m uncertain about who should be third is that, in a subjective vote, the way a player behaves should be factored in. DeChambeau has an edge because he won last fall’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot; Cantlay has an edge because he makes golf better by being a good guy all the time, not just when the mood suits him. The same can’t be said for DeChambeau. (If you can’t take people yelling "Brooksy" at you, what’s going to happen the next time you play a Ryder Cup in Europe?)
Let’s also take a look at Cantlay’s four victories. Remember, we are talking subjectively here, not absolutely. In all likelihood, Cantlay would not have won the Memorial without Rahm’s withdraw. Now, Cantlay did win, and it’s not his fault Rahm didn’t play the final round; you can only beat the guys you’re really playing against. Still, the victory was a little bit like making the final in a tennis tournament in which your opponent gets hurt during the match and has to retire.
There’s also Cantlay's win at the Tour Championship. Again, no fault of his own—he didn’t create the staggered-start system used by the tour—but he also wasn't among the two players who shot the best scores over 72 holes at East Lake. Those were Rahm and Kevin Na, who both shot 14 under. Cantlay shot only 11 under. (Interestingly, in the PGA of America points system, Rahm and Na were considered co-winners because they had the lowest score.)
Patrick Cantlay's four wins in the 2020-21 season are impressive, but they've come with some caveats.
If officials at PGA Tour headquarters had a vote, they’d likely pick Cantlay for POY given his finish to the 2020-21 season. After all, he won the FedEx Cup title, which they like to bill as “The PGA Tour’s ultimate prize.” Technically, that’s true since the majors aren’t technically PGA Tour events. It’s also true that one of the definitions of “ultimate,” is final and the Tour Championship/FedEx Cup is the ultimate—last—event on the tour calendar each season.
You can bet if Commissioner Jay Monahan had a vote, he’d vote for Cantlay and, if voting was in person and not online, he’d drive players to the polls to get them to vote for Cantlay. Nothing wrong with any of that, he’d just being doing his job.
But everyone knows that the majors are golf’s ultimate (other definition) prizes. Hideki Matsuyama, who won the Masters in April, isn’t on the tour’s ballot. Harris English is—he won twice and had a fine year, but seriously? Phil Mickelson, whose PGA Championship victory might have been the story of the year in golf, isn’t either, but he didn’t break an egg—or par very often—the rest of the year.
It should come down to Rahm or Morikawa, but Cantlay could win because he’s so well-liked and because his story is so compelling. But, as I said, this isn’t a vote for story of the year; it isn’t a vote that’s supposed to somehow validate the playoffs. It is supposed to choose the golfer who had the year that mattered most in the pantheon of golf.
That player was Jon Rahm—by a couple of rolls of the golf ball over Morikawa--objectively and subjectively.