Major championships are golf’s clearest definers. They’re the most reliable metric in the tricky game of ranking the greatest players, validated by the totals of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. And majors define the most historic seasons—think 1930, 1953 and 2000.
And, usually but not always, they’re the weightiest criteria for player-of-the-year awards, particularly for the two most important—those bestowed by the PGA Tour and the PGA of America.
The two are slightly different. The PGA of America award, which has been given since 1948, is based on a points system. The tour’s POY, started in 1990, requires tour membership and is voted on by the players. Because the judges are peers, it seems to mean more to the winners.
The surest way to win either award is with multiple majors. The PGA even gives a 50-point bonus for winning two of the four. But when each major is won by a different player, as has been the case so far this year, the point totals are closer and the choice becomes harder.
Which makes this year’s last major—the PGA Championship at Baltusrol—the probable decider. Sure, if it’s close the FedEx Cup and even an Olympic gold medal could serve as tie breakers. But short of a five-victory (but majorless) season like Woods put together in 2013 to win his 11th of each POY award, the winner this year will have won one of golf’s top four prizes.
Going into Baltusrol, the leaders in the PGA of America race are Dustin Johnson and Jason Day with 40 points, with Danny Willett and Henrik Stenson trailing with 30 points. Additional points will be allocated at the end of the year based on money winnings and stroke averages.
For the PGA Tour’s Jack Nicklaus award, Willett, the Masters winner but a nonmember, is not eligible. Johnson has the edge, by virtue of his victories in the U.S. Open and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and his high level of play in general, with nine top-fives and a T-9 in the Open at Troon in 16 events. If the 32-year-old were to win the PGA, he would lock up both awards.
Next in line are this year’s most prolific non-major winners. Day has won the Players Championship, WGC-Match Play and Bay Hill. He has eight top-10s in 14 events, although his T-10 at the Masters, T-8 at the U.S. Open and T-22 at the Open Championship have been a disappointment. However, if the Australian were to successfully defend at the PGA, he would likely sweep the POYs.
As the No. 1 player in the world, Day feels a burden. “It’s coming into the crunch time for me pressure-wise,” he said at last week’s RBC Canadian Open, “because being kind of the favorite going into each tournament and expectation levels [being] high, all that amounts to pressure you put on yourself and stress you put on yourself. You’ve got to somehow manage yourself, manage your ego, then somehow execute the shot, execute the game plan and go out there and try to win.”
Because Stenson has no other victories besides his spectacular turn at Royal Troon, his best shot at awards would be winning the PGA, and then, as he did in 2013, taking the FedEx Cup with a convincing victory in the season-finale Tour Championship.
Next in line is Jordan Spieth, who has two victories (Hyundai TOC and Colonial) and his painful second at the Masters. If he were to win the PGA, it would give him three victories plus a major, which for the moment would tie him with Johnson and provide even more motivation to defend at the FedEx Cup and Tour Championship.
Are POY honors really a big deal? Probably not as much as the MVP awards in MLB, the NFL or the NBA. The POY awards don’t count as qualifying criteria for the World Golf Hall of Fame. But they are surprisingly important to the players, especially those who feel shunned.
Sam Snead never really got over Ben Hogan edging him out for the PGA award in 1950 (at that time voted on by sports writers). Snead won 11 tournaments (although without a major), finished second five times and third twice, and was top 10 in 27 events. He also won the Vardon Trophy. But he lost to Hogan, who won only once. However, it was at the U.S. Open at Merion, after his comeback from a near-fatal auto accident. As Snead said in 1991, “I still don’t think it was right. That couldn’t happen today, because they just go by your record.”
The first year of the PGA Tour award in 1990 also left some hard feelings. Wayne Levi had four wins but no major. More notably, he had only one other top-10 and was no better than 28th in his 23 other appearances. His scoring average of 71.91 was worse than the tour average. By contrast, Greg Norman was the leading money-winner, had two victories (neither a major), finished in the top seven 11 times and won the Vardon Trophy with a then-record 69.10 scoring average. But the players gave it to Levi. Norman was hurt by the vote and admits it contributed to the slump he fell into over the next two years. (By the way, the PGA of America award went to Nick Faldo, a non-PGA Tour member that year who won two majors, the Masters and the Open Championship.)
In 1991, Fred Couples edged Corey Pavin in the players’ vote, even though the close race between the two-time winners was unofficially to be decided by the Tour Championship. But after Pavin finished T-10 to Couples’ T-16 to win the money title (with Couples better in the majors and taking the Vardon Trophy), the players gave their award to Couples. A miffed Pavin got the PGA of America’s award.
In 1996, the logic of 1990 was flipped. Phil Mickelson won four times to Tom Lehman’s twice. But Lehman won the Open at Lytham and ended the year with a six-stroke victory at the Tour Championship. It gave Lehman a narrow margin over Mickelson in the money race and clinched the Vardon Trophy. He got the players’ vote and the PGA of America award. Mickelson has never won a POY award (or been No. 1 in the world).
Since then, the awards were probably most disputed in 2013, when Woods won both despite heavy sentiment for Open Championship winner Mickelson and Masters champion Adam Scott. About the only way a similar scenario could occur this season would be if Day or Speith don’t win the PGA but otherwise run the table.
This year’s major winners will want to put a stop to that at Baltusrol, which is why there will be more than the Wanamaker Trophy at stake.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the July 25, 2016 issue of Golf World.