Publish date:

Wide Open Instead of settling the race for player of the year, the PGA only made picking the winner more difficult

Should Tiger Woods be allowed to serve an unprecedented fifth
consecutive term as PGA Tour player of the year? Preliminary poll
numbers, gathered last week in Rochester, N.Y., suggest that
voters are disenchanted enough with his 2003 performance to put
his reelection in doubt. One exit poll, conducted about 100
yards from the 18th green at Oak Hill Country Club, showed
Woods vulnerable to challenges by any of six
candidates--including a Canadian.

"If it's really close, yeah, I might vote for the underdog," said
Scott McCarron, a veteran Tour player with three tournament
victories in nine seasons. McCarron added that he hadn't ruled
out a bid of his own. "I think I can still win it. I have plenty
of tournaments left."

McCarron was being facetious, but for the first time since 1998,
when Mark O'Meara outpolled leading money winner David Duval, the
race for player of the year is wide open. Masters champion Mike
Weir, who tied for seventh at last week's PGA Championship, has
three wins for the season and is third to Woods and Ernie Els in
scoring average. Steady Davis Love III has as many tournament
wins as Woods (four) and tops the money list. Jim Furyk, winner
of the U.S. Open and the Buick Open, also has support, along with
dark-horse candidates Kenny Perry (three wins), Vijay Singh (two
wins and third in money) and Els (two wins plus a split decision
in March against a punching bag in his garage). A strong autumn
performance by any of these players, accompanied by a Woods
slump, could sway voters.

We are talking about the free and democratic pursuit of the Jack
Nicklaus Trophy, awarded annually by the Tour. The PGA of
America--the organization of club professionals that stages the
PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup--has its own
player-of-the-year race. The PGA version is based on a points
system. A Tour win is worth 10 points. A win in a major
championship is worth 30, with 50 bonus points awarded to a
player who wins two majors and 25 points more for each additional
major. Points are also awarded for finishing in the top 10 on the
Tour's money list and in the Vardon Trophy scoring-average
standings. (Right now, Weir, Woods and Love are 1-2-3,
respectively, under the PGA's scoring system, but a lot of points
are still up for grabs.)

The Tour's award is more prestigious, and more political. In
November, after the season-ending Tour Championship, the 20
members of the Players Advisory Council will nominate up to five
players each. The names of the top five vote-getters will be put
on a paper ballot mailed to Tour members who have played in at
least 15 official events this year. The players then have 30 days
to cast their votes via mail, e-mail or through a special
telephone setup. The votes go directly to the accounting firm of
Price Waterhouse Coopers for tabulation.

Since 1990, when the Tour created its player-of-the-year award,
the players have had little difficulty in picking their honorees.
They have deviated only twice from the PGA's statistically
determined selections--in '90, when they voted for four-time
winner Wayne Levi over nonmember Nick Faldo, and in '91, when
they chose Vardon Trophy winner Fred Couples over money leader
Corey Pavin. The only tough call in recent years was O'Meara, who
had only two wins in '98, versus Duval, winner of four
tournaments, the money title and the Vardon. (O'Meara carried the
day because both his wins were majors--the Masters and the
British Open.) The last time someone won player of the year
without winning a major was in '95, when Greg Norman led the Tour
in money and scoring and went the whole season without missing a

This year's race is more complex. Last week at a pretournament
press conference, Woods was asked about the ballot appeal of the
various candidates. He ducked the question but conceded that he
wanted to be top cat for the sixth time in seven years. "What
makes it such a neat reward is that it is voted on by the players
only," he said. "When you get the players' respect it feels that
much more special, and I hope I can keep it going."

The danger with any vote, Woods knows, is that it can turn into a
popularity contest. This year's race, with multiple candidates
splitting the vote, could be decided by factors that don't
normally come into play--personality, hardship, sentiment, even
raw politics. Love, for example, has played the best golf of his
long and admirable career while dealing with the embezzlement
scandal and messy suicide of his brother-in-law and a hometown
whispering campaign accusing his wife of infidelity. If sentiment
moves the voters, they'll give Love the trophy.

There are other contenders with strong ballot appeal. Els's peers
regard him as a great player who has been overshadowed by Woods;
they may give him points for winning five tournaments around the
globe and reward him for his solid play in this year's majors.
Furyk is personally popular and respected for the leadership he
has provided in three Ryder Cups. Perry, with his small-town
roots, warm demeanor and charitable works, is so well liked that
he could probably make a good showing in the California recall

The only candidate lacking ballot appeal is Singh. He is by no
means unpopular with his peers, who regard him as a true
superstar and an amiable playing partner, but he blundered this
summer by raising a stink over Annika Sorenstam's participation
at the Colonial. Even Singh's friends probably don't want him to
be the face of the PGA Tour in 2003.

Weir could have made it all academic by winning at Oak Hill.
Eighty additional points would have made him uncatchable in the
PGA race, and two major titles would have trumped Woods or Love
in the Tour vote, even if they were to win two or three more
tournaments by season's end. As it is, Weir's top 10 finish moved
him past Furyk to fourth on the money list and gave him three top
10s in the year's majors. Els and Furyk also played well, tying
for fifth and 18th, respectively, but neither changed their
player-of-the-year prospects significantly. Perry shot a
final-round 68 and had his third straight top 10 in a major.
Singh stumbled in with a 79 on Sunday and finished 34th. Love,
who had won in Colorado the week before, shot 74-75 and missed
the cut.

Meanwhile, those looking for a contest based on a mix of
objective and subjective criteria had only to follow the wrap-up
of the Presidents Cup selection process. The U.S. team, which
will clash with the Internationals in November in South Africa,
qualifies 10 players from a two-year points list, ending with the
PGA. Oak Hill quickly dashed the prospects of several players on
the bubble, including Brad Faxon (82-79) and Rochester native
Jeff Sluman (75-79). Young Charles Howell, however, played well
and secured an automatic berth. The next day U.S. captain Jack
Nicklaus completed his roster by picking Fred Funk and Jay Haas,
while International captain Gary Player selected Tim Clark of
South Africa, who came in 16th in the Presidents Cup standings
but third at Oak Hill, and K.J. Choi of South Korea.

Woods finished No. 1 in the Presidents Cup standings despite a
12-over-par showing at Oak Hill--his worst score in a major since
turning pro--but no one is counting him out of the
player-of-the-year race. "If Davis or Mike wins two or three more
times, it'll be a clear choice," says the 49-year-old Haas, who
surprised the pundits by tying for fifth in Rochester. "If not,
you might have to go to statistics--top 10s, their record in the
majors, their consistency. And if Tiger wins three more, how can
you overlook that? If I had his year, I'd say, 'Hey, I deserve

Alas, in politics you don't always get what you deserve. Some
voters will see Woods's relatively weak performance in this
year's majors as reason enough to reward a rising star like Weir
or a consistent performer like Love. "If it's neck and neck, and
Tiger's not having his best year, some guys might vote that way,"
says Lee Janzen, a two-time U.S. Open champion. "Right now, I'd
say the vote would be split."

That doesn't concern Tour officials. "It could be very exciting,"
says Jodi Herb, the Tour's manager of player communications. "We
haven't had a who's-it-going-to-be year since O'Meara won." The
candidates, meanwhile, are gearing up for the fall campaign,
which kicks off this week with the NEC Invitational in Akron.
(First prize, $1.08 million.) Woods, a three-time winner of the
event, will no doubt be eager to point out what the nation's
voters learned during the Truman-Dewey presidential race of 1948:
The pollsters can be wrong.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER MISSED OPPORTUNITY Weir, who tops the PGA's player-of-the-year standings, could have iced the more prestigious Tour version of the award at Oak Hill.






COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK UP AND DOWN Love (top) hurt his Nicklaus Trophy chances with a missed cut, but Clark earned a Presidents Cup berth.



THE PGA CHAMPIONSHIP did little to sort out one of the most
competitive player-of-the-year races in history. The Jack
Nicklaus Trophy will now be decided over the season's final 14
tournaments, which include three marquee events with $6 million
purses: this week's NEC Invitational, the American Express
Championship (Oct. 2-5) and the Tour Championship (Nov. 6-9 ).
Here's our take on the top candidates.


His bogeyless final round at the Masters was golf at its highest
level, and his other victories, in L.A. and at the Hope, were
both thrillers. He's fourth in top 10s, with nine, and he was
strong at the U.S. Open (T3) and the PGA (T7).

He hasn't won since the Masters, four long months ago.

He's a class act, and a trailblazer--the first Canadian to win a
major and the first lefty to do so in 40 years.

Outplay Furyk down the stretch.


He's won on four of the best courses on Tour--Pebble Beach,
Sawgrass, Harbour Town and Castle Pines--and leads the money

Shaky in the majors, as usual, missing cuts at the U.S. Open and
the PGA and blowing a chance to win the British.

Already one of the most popular players on Tour, he's the
sentimental choice given the composure he's shown amid his
off-course turmoil. Plus, Weir and Furyk may split the Grand Slam
vote and pave the way for Love.

Hang on to win the money title.


Four quality wins, despite a limited schedule, and he's only a
few bucks behind Love in the money race.

He spit the bit at the only tournaments that really matter to
him, the majors. His three worst finishes of the year were at the
PGA (39th), the U.S. Open (20th) and the Masters (15th).

He alienated his fellow pros with nebulous cheating accusations,
which means nobody will vote for him unless they absolutely have
to. Norman in '95 was the last player to win POY without a major.

Put together a monster finish, with at least two more wins.


U.S. Open champ has been terrific from start to finish, with 13
top 10s in 20 starts, including a fourth at the Masters. Bonus
points for staring down Tiger en route to victory at the U.S.
Open and the Buick Open.

Two wins aren't much, given how many times he's been in
contention. The only recent POY with just two victories was Mark
O'Meara in 1998, but both of his W's were majors.

A pro's pro, he handled his darkness-interrupted playoff loss at
Doral with class, and every player on Tour respects this gritty,
down-to-earth success story.

Pick up at least one more win and put a hex on Weir.


He had the most sizzling stretch of the year, with three wins in
eight tournaments that also included five other top 10s,
highlighted by a T3 at the U.S. Open, a T8 at the British and a
T10 at the PGA.

In his first 13 tournaments, through the middle of May, he
finished better than 18th only twice. Plus, one of his victories,
at Milwaukee, really counts as only half a

One of the most likable guys in golf, and, at 43, he would be the
oldest player ever to win POY.

Weakest candidate needs the best finish--two more wins a must.