As soon as Rory McIlroy won the FedExCup, the last event on the 2018-19 PGA Tour, the debate started. Who is “Player of the Year?”
Is it Rory, who also won The Players Championship and the Canadian Open? Or is it Brooks Koepka, whose three victories came at the CJ Cup in South Korea, the US PGA Championship and the World Golf Championship-FedEx St. Jude Invitational? No one else is really part of the conversation.
There are those who will automatically go for Brooks. He won a major championship in a year when Rory did not add to his total of four. But that is too simplistic, especially when you consider that Rory won his third Vardon Trophy, which goes to the man with the lowest stroke average for the season. Then again, we also need to consider that the year is far from over, at least for Rory, on the European Tour. So maybe all we are thinking about is “Player of the Year so far.”
Let’s look at Brooks first. No one, it is fair to say, played the major championships better than he did this year. Second in The Masters, first at the US PGA, second at the US Open and fourth at The Open Championship represents a pretty formidable body of work. He finished ahead of Rory In all four, too.
Winning a major is hard to beat, a tough thing to match. But having played well just about every week, I’d have to bet Rory has enjoyed his year more than Brooks. In 19 PGA Tour starts, Rory recorded an extraordinary 14 top-10 finishes, although he did miss two halfway cuts. In his 21 events, Brooks had nine top-10. Not bad. But he also finished 50th or worse on five occasions, as well as missing one cut.
So do we go with overall consistency, or give more credit to that major win? This isn’t easy.
Still, I’m coming round to voting for Rory. If we assume that the point of any professional golfer’s job is to play well as much as possible – and have as much fun as you can along the way – he has to get the edge. Which is not to say Brooks won’t have had a lot of fun over the course of the season. But he has had a lot more bad weeks than Rory. He’s been more up-and-down. So week-to-week, Rory has more often than not been the guy with the bigger smile on his face. He has pretty much always been competing, nearly always part of the mix, which is the ultimate fun.
From a player’s perspective, I’m leaning towards Rory’s year being the better of the two. Only leaning though. From a historical perspective, Brooks’ year is probably going to be remembered more and for longer. Which is the case any time you win at least one of the four most important events in the game. Like it or not, neither the Players nor the FedExCup has anything like the historical impact of a major title.
This is a hard decision to make.
I’ve heard it said too, that Rory would swap his year for Tiger’s but might not exchange with Brooks. Which is obvious, given that The Masters Tiger won would have completed the career Grand Slam for Rory. That, I’m sure, is the biggest prize for Rory going forward. And the biggest hurdle. Relatively speaking, he has played poorly at Augusta National ever since he won the 2014 Open Championship at Hoylake – for him the third of the four legs.
I’m wandering a little off topic here, but one of the hardest things to do in golf is play your best when you’re trying your hardest to play your best. It is easy to start forcing things at majors. We saw that, I think, with Rory during the Open Championship at Royal Portrush. Playing at home in Northern Ireland his emotions got the better of him, even though he was playing well at the time – as his 65 on day two showed.
“Even when I first played in majors I didn’t give them that much thought. But when I started to play decently at least semi-regularly, I began to pay them too much attention.”
On the other hand, Brooks does seem to handle extreme levels of pressure better than just about anyone. He is unflappable. Look at the way he has won his majors. In all four he has answered every question that came his way. No one does that. No one since Tiger anyway.
Then again, while Brooks’ game is amazing, Rory’s looks to be more fun. When he is playing well, no one appears to be enjoying himself more than Rory.
Who doesn’t want to stand there and hit a big draw with the driver? Who doesn’t want to smash it miles? Who doesn’t want to make a full, uninhibited release on every shot? Those facts are confirmed by the numbers too. Rory is top in the “strokes gained off the tee” and “strokes gained tee-to-green” categories on the PGA Tour. He is the most effective driver I have ever seen. He hits it over 300 yards without even thinking about it. Only people swinging the club properly can hit the ball the way Rory does.
Okay, we’re getting there. Or are we? I’m starting to second-guess myself.
As I said, I would have enjoyed Rory’s year more. But if I was sitting down at Christmas and looking back I would be pretty happy with Brooks’ year too.
It is the major thing I’m having trouble with. When I first turned professional I wasn’t getting into them. So they weren’t a big part of my year. They weren’t on my radar. Even when I first played in majors I didn’t give them that much thought. But when I started to play decently at least semi-regularly, I began to pay them too much attention. Then I didn’t play as well. I was trying too hard. Because, once you are in them, you realise that they are on a completely different level. Winning one means so much more than winning a regular event. They are such a big deal.
Then again (there’s that phrase again), more and more people are buying into the fact that The Players is almost on the level of a major. It has an incredible field and Sawgrass is a tough place to go and win. I know I never really worked out how to play well there. So Rory deserves big points for winning it this year.
Okay, it is decision-time. I’m going with Rory. The “fun” argument is the strongest for me. So, although Brooks has played great at big times, Rory has played more really good golf over the last 12 months. He will have felt more satisfaction than Brooks. I always played golf to hit good shots. I loved my job when I was hitting the ball well, scoring well and doing well in tournaments. And when I wasn’t doing those things, I wasn’t enjoying myself. Not really.
Ultimately, that’s my measure for “Player of the Year.” Not the most profitable. Not the guy who popped up at the “right” times. But the guy who played great most often. So it is Rory for me.