KAPALUA, Hawaii —The optics are not great, and given the contentious nature of professional golf nowadays, you’re forgiven for thinking the fix was in for Scottie Scheffler winning the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year honors over Jon Rahm. Before you make any accusations that the result was an inside job, it’s worth noting the vote among tour members began before Rahm departed to LIV Golf. Granted, rumors were rampant following the Ryder Cup that the Spaniard was bound for the Saudi-backed circuit, so we can’t discount that influence on a membership that continues to be at odds with the possible integration of LIV’s financial backers. The truth behind Wednesday’s announcement, however, is much more simple, and far less controversial:
Players have different barometers of success than fans do.
Scheffler, now the winner of the honor for a second straight year, is far from the first controversial Player of the Year, although this year’s award feels notable because it didn’t seem like a debate. Rahm won four times, highlighted by his triumph at the Masters. Though he cooled off in the second half of the season, he still posted 10 top-10 finishes in just 20 tour starts, including a runner-up finish at the Open Championship. Rahm also had three points in four matches for the Europeans in Rome, and though this award is supposed to be solely based on tour events (which the Ryder Cup is not), Rahm’s performance at Marco Simone couldn’t have hurt. Along the way, Rahm reached No. 1 in the world and fulfilled the lofty ambitions his talents have long promised.
Then there is Scheffler. He had an impressive campaign, capturing the WM Phoenix Open and the Players Championship. And he was remarkably consistent, logging a whopping 17 top-10s in 23 starts. However, most of Scheffler’s year was known for what it was not, as his putting problems became the primary narrative over the spring and summer. That carried into the Ryder Cup, where Scheffler went 0–2–2 in four matches. The simple math is four victories to two, and that’s before adding the consequence that the man with four won a major while the one with two did not. Rahm as POY seemed not a question as much as an inevitability.
There’s an argument that Scheffler wasn’t even the second-best player of 2023, as the Golf Writers Association of America announced Rahm won its Male Player of the Year award on Monday … with Viktor Hovland, a three-time winner including the FedEx Cup title, earning the silver medal. So what are the players seeing with Scheffler’s year that fans and media are not?
For starters, there’s the notion that, statistically, Scheffler was actually better. Scheffler led the tour in strokes gained/overall (2.34) and SG/tee-to-green (2.62). The latter mark was the second-best figure in the PGA Tour’s strokes-gained era, bested only by Tiger Woods in 2006 (2.98). Anytime your name is mentioned in the same breath as Woods, you’re doing something remarkable. Scheffler also had the best adjusted scoring output of anyone in tour history not named Tiger with a 68.63 average (although for those scoring at home, Woods has the top six scoring average seasons). For context, Rahm was fifth on tour in strokes gained/overall, sixth in SG/tee-to-green and third in scoring average.
To be fair to Rahm, he did slightly better in DataGolf’s True Strokes Gained category in 2023, ranking second with a 2.33 mark. Conversely, Scheffler ranked first with 2.88 strokes gained, and the disparity between Scheffler and Rahm is the same as Rahm and Tyrell Hatton, who finished ninth in DataGolf’s calculation. Strokes gained is not a perfect statistic, yet in a time when sabermetrics and analytics are gaining wider acceptance among sports fans, strokes gained does the best mathematical job of informing us who matters.
Scheffler also blows out Rahm when it comes to consistency. The Texan’s top-10s were listed above, but arguably more impressive is the fact that Scheffler made it until the end of July before finishing outside the top 12. He had 14 top-fives, including a runner-up at the PGA Championship and third-place finish at the U.S. Open to go with those two wins. Rahm? The Spainard was only so-so—or at least so-so by his ridiculously high standards—following Augusta, with three top-10s in his final 10 starts, and no-showed during the FedEx Cup Playoffs by finishing in the bottom half of all three postseason events. To call Rahm’s first half of 2023 the byproduct of a heater is unfair; a lot of golfers get hot, only a handful in tour history win to that degree with a Masters title in tow. Still, there’s something to be said for being in the mix in every competition like Scheffler was.
And, as more than a few players pointed out this week in Kapalua, a not insignificant amount of players view the FedEx Cup points and earnings lists as their standards. Scheffler trounced Rahm in dollars ($21,014,342 to $16,522,608) and points (Scheffler first in regular season FEC, Rahm fourth). To many in the professional golf world—including Rahm, judging by his decision to join LIV—money is the final arbiter.
If it’s any consolation, Rahm was not the lone controversial snub. Fledgling star Ludvig Aberg was bested by Eric Cole for Rookie of the Year. Aberg’s brilliant half-year apparently fell short of Cole’s year-long dividends, even if those results never included the heights that Aberg reached (punctuated by a win at the RSM Classic, where he beat Cole by six shots). Give the players this, they are consistent and democratic with their choosing.
Does that mean the players are right? Admittedly, it’s still a tough swallow. Yes, wins should not be the lone gauge of success, yet giving strokes gained importance over them doesn’t feel right. Getting it done when a trophy on the line should still matter. If you distilled the Player of the Year to the following question to Rahm and Scheffler—Would you trade your 2023 for his?—it’s probable that Scheffler would, at the least, consider a swap … and there’s no chance Rahm is giving up his green jacket. In that vein, the winner is Rahm by a mile.
But that’s also not to say the players are wrong, or we are right. It’s just a different outlook, which is not the same as controversial. No matter how it might look.