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Scheffler vs. Rahm? The Player of the Year race offers an intriguing debate in what makes for a 'better' season

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November 26, 2023

Consistency or potency? The (essentially) two-horse race for the PGA Tour’s 2023 Player of the Year honor will come down to those criteria as the vote of tour members is revealed in the coming days.

Does Scottie Scheffler, who won the WM Phoenix Open and the Players Championship while amassing 17 top-10 finishes in 23 events, deserve the Jack Nicklaus Award? Or should it go to Jon Rahm, winner of four titles, two of which came back-to-back and one of which was the Masters for his second career major title?

“It depends what you value,” Rory McIlroy, a three-time winner of the award, said during the Tour Championship at East Lake in August. “I think it could come down to this week and who performs.”

That said, neither player looked all that great in their final start on the PGA Tour in 2023. Scheffler coughed up a two-shot pre-tournament lead to finish T-6 at 11 under. Rahm stumbled with a 74 Sunday to finish T-18 at seven under. Viktor Hovland’s FedEx Cup title victory at the Tour Champoinship made him a dark-horse candidate to win POY, but it still feels like the decision is really between Scheffler and Rahm given their full season body of work.

Scheffler, 27, finished outside the top 12 just three times in his fourth season on tour. He also shared second at the PGA Championship and finished third at the U.S. Open. He finished with a 68.63 scoring average, the seventh lowest in tour history (the other six are remarkably all held by Tiger Woods). He made bogey or worse on just 10.73 percent of his holes for the year, the first player who had enough rounds to qualify for season-long statistics who posted a percentage lower than 11 percent since … wait for it … Woods in 2002 (10.29 percent).

Rahm, 28, had two runner-up results, one of which was a T-2 at the Open Championship, while he posting a T-10 at the U.S. Open. For the season, the Spaniard had 10 top-10s.

While Scheffler, who'll be teeing it up for the first time since the Ryder Cup at this coming week's Hero World Challenge, has fewer wins, he ranked No. 1 in strokes gained/off the tee and strokes gained/approach, the first to do that in the SG era. The 2.62 strokes Scheffler gained from tee to green was second only to Tiger Woods’ 2006 season, when he averaged 2.98 strokes.

“He’s hit the ball as good, if not better, than Tiger hit it in 2000, which is the benchmark for all of us,” McIlroy said.

But the Nicklaus Award is not about the ball-striker of the year. For many, it’s about winning, and majors weigh most heavily when casting their votes. Rahm has more of both this year.

“Because Rahm won a major and how hot Rahm’s year was, winning four alone in the calendar year and in the first four months, this year it’s got to be Rahmbo,” Tony Finau said at East Lake. “I still believe the hardest thing to do on tour is win; the second hardest thing is consistency. I’ve got to go with the guy who is winning more than the guy who is consistent.”

Added McIlroy: “Scottie’s won twice this year, Jon’s won four times. Jon’s won the Masters, Scottie’s won the Players. I think Jon probably has a little more to show for his year.”

But it’s not quite that clear. Rickie Fowler for one was still trying to make up his mind, sounding like he was leaning toward the consistency camp.

“If someone won two majors and another event and missed every other cut compared to someone who won three regular events and then played solidly throughout, you’d probably pick the one with the more consistent record,” Fowler said. “There’s such a value on majors, and that’s what you want to have a nice number in on your résumé at the end of your career, but I think a lot more goes into the overall package of consistent play. You can argue both sides.”

We’ll see which way more PGA Tour pros decided to lean when the winner is announced shortly.

Editor's Note—An earlier version of this story first ran Aug. 27, 2023