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Tiger Still Has the Honor

October 09, 2003|THOMAS BONK

All aboard the Tiger Woods bandwagon. That thing must have reclining leather seats, cocktail service and room for, well, probably everybody, the way people are risking pulled muscles just so they can hop on.

So Tiger has the player-of-the-year award wrapped up again? If that's true, they might as well retire the trophy and get it over with. Woods has already won the last four years and by all accounts, his drive for five is looking pretty good.

Last week's victory in the American Express Championship in suburban Atlanta was Woods' fifth tournament win this year, and even though none of them came at a major, there are other factors at work in Tiger's favor.

For instance, Woods is back atop the money list, he also has 11 top-10 finishes in 16 events and unless he develops a sudden twitch that causes him to launch a couple of dozen shots out of bounds, he'll win the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average a record fifth time.

That's not bad, either, as nobody has won the Vardon Trophy more than three times in a row and that was Tom Watson 24 years ago, when Tiger hadn't yet turned 4.

Woods has so much in his favor, it's hard to believe the other players don't just quit chasing him. Or is it?

Let's check the race. Handicappers say the closest to Woods is Mike Weir, who won the Masters and two other tournaments and is fifth on the money list. Next would be Jim Furyk with two victories, one of them the U.S. Open, plus 14 top 10s and fourth place on the money list.

Vijay Singh and Davis Love III are in the same boat as Woods, that is, major-less. Singh has three victories, no majors, and he's second on the money list. Love has four victories, no majors, and he's third on the money list.

Then there are Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel, who won only once, but they chose the best time to do it. Curtis won the British Open and Micheel the PGA Championship.

No one else has a chance. But before Woods starts practicing his acceptance speech, it's worth pointing out that he's going up against some history. You don't necessarily have to win a major to earn player-of-the-year honors, but it clearly helps.

If Woods wins, he will be the first player of the year without a major victory in his award-winning season in eight years, since Greg Norman in 1995.

Every player since has won at least one major on his way to being selected player of the year. Tom Lehman won the British Open and the Tour Championship in 1996, Woods won the Masters and three other tournaments in 1997, Mark O'Meara won the Masters and British Open in 1998.

The Woods Era was next. He won the PGA Championship and seven other tournaments in 1999, three majors and six other times in 2000, the Masters and four others in 2001 and the Masters and U.S. Open and three others in 2002.

The linkage of major titles with player of the year is a new trend. It didn't happen in the early years of the award, which the PGA Tour kicked off in 1990. Wayne Levi won that first year, without a major, but with four tournament victories. Fred Couples won twice, but not a major, when he was chosen player of the year in 1991. And in 1993, Nick Price came up without a major title but won four times and was first on the money list.

If there was a turning point in how important winning majors was to the award, it was in 1998. O'Meara's two major titles were his only victories that year and he was seventh on the money list. He won player of the year. Meanwhile, David Duval won four times, had 12 top 10s, led the money list and won the Vardon Trophy. He didn't win.

The bottom line is that no matter what anybody says, this year's race is still being run. What if Weir wins the $6-million Tour Championship, with $1.08 million going to the champion? Or suppose Furyk wins this week at Las Vegas and then comes through at the Tour Championship?

Woods can make the issue pointless, depending on how he plays, thus sending the issue to the voters.

Here's how that works. After the Tour Championship ends Nov. 9, members of the PGA Tour's player advisory council and the policy board nominate player-of-the-year candidates. Ballots are sent out to every PGA Tour member who has played at least 15 times, which is going to be about 175 players.

The ballots are mailed through the post office or e-mailed electronically. Players also can choose by calling an 800 number.

Then the player of the year is announced in December.

That's all there is to it. We can hardly wait until we hear Tiger's name called again. But first, where's that bandwagon?

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