Ladies and gentlemen, meet your 1996 PGA Tour Player of the Year
...Phil Mickelson. Correction, Mark Brooks. Sorry, it's
actually Tom Lehman. No, wait....
All right, it's a photo finish. Hold all tickets, please. We
have a three-man dead heat, compliments of last week's--check
that, this week's--Tour Championship at Tulsa's Southern Hills,
the season's grand finale. With a $3 million purse and an elite
field of the top 30 money winners, the Tour Championship is
supposed to end all debate on such things as player of the year.
But then Lehman pancaked the field, and instead of Final
Jeopardy! the tournament became potpourri for $540,000, Alex.
That left it to us to sort out who's who in '96, which shouldn't
be any tougher than cleaning up after the New York Yankees'
This much is certain: When the rain finally cleared on Monday
and Lehman's delayed, six-stroke win over Brad Faxon was
completed, the above-mentioned first prize vaulted Lehman over
Mickelson and enabled him to win the Palmer Trophy for finishing
on top of the money list. His dominance at man-eating Southern
Hills--Lehman had no score higher than 67 in the first three
days--also paid a hidden dividend. The only player to break par
in the first two rounds, Lehman topped himself with another of
his Saturday specials. His third-round 65 at the U.S. Open and
the 64 he put up on Saturday at the British Open were already
among the best rounds of the year. But the 64 he unleashed in
Tulsa, in addition to providing a Clintonesque lead over Faxon
and Vijay Singh ("I've never been nine shots back...and been in
second place," Faxon said), allowed Lehman to pull away from
Mark O'Meara and win the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring
average. Finally, Lehman earned enough points in Tulsa to lock
up the PGA of America's Player of the Year award.
But it is the PGA Tour Player of the Year, voted on by the
players and announced in January, which the pros covet, and
Lehman's performance in Tulsa, coupled with his British Open
victory over Nick Faldo at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, injected
him into what had been a two-man race between Mickelson and
Brooks. Add up the whole package and Lehman, a self-effacing
Minnesotan, looks suspiciously like our BAP--Best American Player.
"Player of the year means a lot to me," says Lehman, whose
closing 71 gave him a 12-under-par 268 in the Tour Championship.
"I think it means a lot to anyone. It's voted on by your
peers--that's what's so special about it. If 200 guys on Tour
vote and say, 'Tom Lehman was the best player in 1996,' that's a
pretty strong statement. I've been to the awards ceremony and
have seen Freddie Couples and Greg Norman accept that award and
thought, Man, it sure would be nice to go up and get that big
Is Lehman going to win the vote? Should he? If not, who should?
That depends on whether you like your bread toasted on only one
side or prefer Coke to Pepsi. It's a matter of taste. Let's take
a look at the contenders.
Lehman, the British Open champion, had an awfully solid year. On
the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open, he was a par away from forcing a
playoff. He was in position to win way more than anyone else on
Tour, as evidenced by his five top-three and 13 top-10 finishes
in 23 starts. Consistency counts, and Lehman was consistently
strong. Why he should get your vote: Nobody played better in the
majors (his worst finish was 18th in the Masters), he won the
money and scoring titles, his wins came on great courses, and he
played a leading role at the Presidents Cup. Why he shouldn't
get your vote: Mickelson had twice as many wins, and Lehman had
to beat only 29 players, maybe half of whom were still motivated
at the end of October in Tulsa.
Mickelson dazzled us with his start, winning twice in Arizona,
his adopted home, and he was on top of the money list for most
of the year. Only Nick Price and Wayne Levi have won four times
in a year during the 1990s. (Price did it twice, winning five
times in '94 after a four-win year in '93.) Mickelson spread out
his wins over the year--two in January, one in May and one in
August. In '96 the lefthander finally made the leap from good
player to major force.
"I feel like I accomplished a couple of things, including
improving my Thursday and Friday scoring average, which gave me
a lot more opportunities on the weekend. Consequently I ended up
winning more tournaments," Mickelson says. "I wasn't really
happy with the way my career had gone, although I had won every
year. I didn't feel I was as consistent as I needed to be, so I
worked a lot harder on my game this year."
Why he should get your vote: Mickelson beat the best on a hard
course at the World Series of Golf, and four wins is four
wins--at least one more than anyone else. Why he shouldn't get
your vote: The fields in Tucson, Phoenix and Irving, Texas,
places he also won, weren't particularly strong. Like the Tour
Championship, the World Series has a limited field. If you
haven't won a major, do you deserve to be player of the year?
And while he had two top 10s in majors, one was a third at the
Masters (you mean Faldo and Norman weren't the only ones on the
course on Sunday at Augusta?) and the other was a discouraging
weekend fade to a tie for eighth at the PGA.
Brooks, the gritty Fort Worth native, never backs down and
seldom backs off when he's in the lead. Like Mickelson, he
spread out his good play over the entire year. He won three
times--the Hope in January, the Shell Houston Open in May and
his first major, the PGA, in August. He also made the Presidents
"I'm very pleased with my year," Brooks says. "I think I've
continued to improve. You can use stroke average or whatever
barometer you want, I know I'm a better player than I was five
or six years ago."
Why he should get your vote: Brooks won a major and had no
extended stretches of bad play despite playing 31 tournaments.
Lehman would have won at least six times if he were as good a
closer as Brooks. Why he shouldn't get your vote: Brooks wasn't
as consistent as Lehman. Brooks is not in the top 12 in scoring,
and he has let up since winning the PGA at Valhalla. When it was
time to make a run at Mickelson for player of the year, in
September and October, Brooks couldn't make it happen. Finally,
three wins is one less than four.
There was another candidate, a long shot worth mentioning. He
needed to win the Tour Championship to have a chance, unless
bonus points are awarded for impact. In that case Tiger Woods
would've been all-world. Woods won twice in three weeks after
turning pro in September, and instead of simply securing a Tour
card for '97, he had a shot at finishing among the top 10 on the
Did somebody say impact player? On Monday, Oct. 21, 24 hours
after Woods earned a spot in the Tour Championship by winning
the Disney, Oklahoma had a bad hair day. The wind cut like a
chain saw, rain splattered like a shotgun blast and the
temperature struggled to hit 40. West of Tulsa, in the desolate
Oklahoma panhandle, eight inches of snow fell, but it didn't
matter. The phones at the Tour Championship's office rang like
the lines at a Public Broadcasting Service auction. "Let's go to
the A Board. The first item up for bid, two tickets to
Thursday's first round to watch Tiger play with Brad Faxon...."
Calls about tickets came from California, Canada and Mexico.
Last-minute requests for press credentials came from Boston, New
York, Houston, Atlanta and other cities where the Tour
Championship was suddenly newsworthy.
Woods's effect was felt inside the ropes too. "Every time
someone comes along and elevates the game a bit," says Lehman,
"the guys who are already up there--guys like Couples, Faldo,
Mickelson and Norman--aren't going to like it. They don't want
to get beat by Tiger all the time. They're going to work harder.
They won't want to take a backseat. Guys out here have egos.
Everywhere you go, you're written about and the focus of
attention. Now there's a new kid on the block and it's, 'Hey,
what about me?' Nobody likes to be yesterday's news."
High-performance golf is not the norm around Halloween, when
many Tour pros are too tired from high-fiving their accountants
to whip their games into shape for four rounds at an unforgiving
track like Southern Hills. But Lehman played brilliantly,
answering the perceived challenge from Woods. Yet Tigermania was
hardly dampened. In the first round, Woods was paired with
Faxon, who joked afterward, "I've never had that many people
follow me around on a Thursday. They must've heard about my
Despite the support, this was the week Woods finally hit the
wall. Still fighting a cold he had caught at the Disney, he was
tired and irritable, slamming clubs into the ground and talking
to himself after the smallest error or bad break. Woods opened
with a 70, even par, but then the fun was over. At 3 a.m. on
Friday he had to rush his 64-year-old father, Earl, to the
trauma room of a local hospital. A heavy smoker who had
undergone quadruple bypass surgery 10 years ago, Earl was
suffering from bronchitis. He was treated for fluid in his left
lung and checked for heart trouble. Later that day, Tiger shot
78, his worst round as a pro. "I didn't want to be here because
there are more important things in life than golf," Woods said
later. "I love my dad to death and wouldn't want anything to
happen to him." Earl was scheduled to check out of the hospital
on Tuesday. Tiger lagged 23 shots back after three rounds, an
unaccustomed position, but finished strong with a 68 and
concluded his dream debut in 24th place on the money list with
almost $800,000 in only eight events.
While Woods's week wasn't one to remember, Lehman's was, even
with the rain that wiped out Sunday's play and forced a rare
Monday finish. "Tom came in here knowing what a win could do,
and look what he's done," said Mickelson, who needed to come in
second or third to avoid losing the money title. He placed 12th.
All that's left now is the player of the year voting. Who's it
going to be? "What a great year Phil has had," says Davis Love
III. "And he didn't putt great, either. He putted well for about
six weeks and blew guys away. If you look at the numbers, Brooks
might impress you more, but the way he plays doesn't necessarily
blow you away. So you might lean toward Mickelson. But Brooksie
had a hell of a year. Tom won a major and had a lot of high
So which one is the best player on Tour? "Freddie Couples--when
he's healthy," Love says conclusively.
Fine. Looks like we're going to have to do this all over again
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK [Tom Lehman playing golf]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Brooks never lost control this season when he found himself in the driver's seat. [Mark Brooks playing golf]
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Worn out after taking his father to the hospital, Woods skied to a second-round 78. [Tiger Woods]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK For Mickelson, who nearly lifted this shot onto the TV tower, the Tour Championship was a flop. [Crowd watching Phil Mickelson playing golf]