Scottie Scheffler? Cam Smith? A look at PGA Tour award contenders

Sports

There are only two events left in the PGA Tour regular season, with $15 million up for grabs at this week’s BMW Championship in Wilmington, Delaware, and another $18 million for the winner of the season-ending Tour Championship in Atlanta on Aug. 25-28.

There’s also plenty of hardware at stake, besides the FedEx Cup. Scottie Scheffler and Cameron Smith are the leading candidates for PGA Tour Player of the Year, and Cameron Young is the overwhelming favorite for Rookie of the Year.

Can someone else make a case for Player of the Year with a victory or two these next two weeks, like Patrick Cantlay did last season? Can another hotshot unseat Young with a resounding win?

Here are the top candidates for the season-ending awards, as well as a couple of others the tour might want to bring back or introduce:

PGA Tour Player of the Year (Jack Nicklaus Trophy)

The Jack Nicklaus Trophy is administered by the PGA Tour and is voted on by players.

Scottie Scheffler: The Texan was the hottest player on the planet for much of the spring. After failing to win in his first two seasons on tour, he won four times in six starts, including his first major championship at the Masters in April.

Scheffler has cooled off since and missed the cut at the FedEx St. Jude Championship. Still, he tied for second in the U.S. Open and 21st at The Open. He has hit 72% of greens in regulation, tops on tour, and has earned nearly $13.2 million, the most in a single season in PGA Tour history.

During a news conference last week in Memphis, Tennessee, Scheffler wasn’t sure who voted on the award.

“That would be a tremendous honor to win, but it’s not something that’s going to occupy too many of my thoughts,” Scheffler said. “I can’t control who [reporters] think is the best player. To be honest with you, I don’t know exactly who votes on that. I know that we vote, and do y’all have a vote as well?”

Cameron Smith: Smith has won three times this season and claimed two of professional golf’s biggest events, the Players in March and the 150th Open at St. Andrews in July. He also took home the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January. He tied for third at the Masters, tied for 13th at the PGA Championship and missed the cut at the U.S. Open.

Smith is one of the best putters in the world; he ranks seventh in shots gained: putting (.618). He also leads the tour in birdie average with 4.69 per round.

It probably would be naive to believe the recent published reports that indicate Smith is leaving soon for the LIV Golf circuit will not influence some players’ ballots. Four of five players anonymously surveyed by ESPN at last week’s FedEx St. Jude Championship insisted they would remain impartial, even if they believed Smith was defecting to the Saudi Arabia-backed league. It might not help Smith’s case that he’s not playing in the BMW Championship because of a lingering hip injury.

One player, who said he would remain neutral, admitted he was still voting for Scheffler, regardless of what happens in the final two playoff events.

“Cam caught a hot putter, and Scottie Scheffler played the best golf anyone has seen for a while,” the player said. “My vote is for Scheffler.”

Rory McIlroy: McIlroy was arguably the best player in the majors this season, but his eight-year drought without a major championship victory will carry into the 2023 season. He was painfully close again this season, finishing second at the Masters, eighth at the PGA Championship, tied for fifth at the U.S. Open and third at The Open. McIlroy’s cumulative score of 29 under in the four majors was 8 shots better than the next player, Will Zalatoris.

Despite being the most consistent player in the majors and winning twice this season, at the CJ Cup @ Summit in October and the RBC Canadian Open in June, it probably won’t be enough for McIlroy to win the Jack Nicklaus Trophy for the fourth time.

Tony Finau: Finau’s trajectory this season was the opposite of Scheffler’s. He struggled mightily at the beginning of the year, missing cuts in three of four events from late January to mid-March.

But Finau has been red-hot lately, winning the 3M Open and Rocket Mortgage Classic in consecutive starts and tying for fifth at the FedEx St. Jude Championship. If he were to win the BMW Championship or Tour Championship, or both, he’d at least have an argument for Player of the Year.

PGA Tour Rookie of the Year (Arnold Palmer Award)

Players competing in their first season of PGA Tour membership are eligible for the award, if they played in fewer than seven events in any prior season. Zalatoris and Scheffler are recent winners.

Cameron Young: The New York native should be an overwhelming favorite for Rookie of the Year. He tied for third at the PGA Championship and was solo second at The Open. He is only the second player since 1958 to finish in the top three in his debut at both those events; Collin Morikawa won both in his first start.

Young is one of the longest hitters off the tee, averaging 318.6 yards. He ranks second in shots gained off the tee (.982). He has seven top-10s in 23 tour starts, including five runners-up. He has won $6.3 million this season, the most in a single season by a player without a victory (Zalatoris held the record until winning last week).

Young was linked to the LIV Golf circuit by a published report in London last week, but he seems to be leaning heavily toward staying with the PGA Tour.

Davis Riley: The 25-year-old former Alabama star nearly won the Valspar Championship in March, but lost to Sam Burns in a playoff. He has 10 top-25s in 28 tour starts, including six top-10s. It’s a great start to his PGA Tour career, but not as good as Young this season.

Joohyung Kim: Kim burst onto the scene with his first victory at the Wyndham Championship earlier this month. The 20-year-old South Korean became the second youngest winner on tour since World War II; Jordan Spieth was 19 when he won the John Deere Classic in 2013.

Kim was granted membership on the PGA Tour with the victory and qualified for the FedEx Cup playoffs. He tied for 13th in Memphis last week.

“I still can’t really wrap my head around what just happened,” Kim said last week. “It’s been a crazy month. Start of July I was planning on trying to get my card through [the] Korn Ferry Finals and now one month later I’m a PGA Tour winner, so it’s pretty crazy.”

Sahith Theegala: Theegala broke out in mid-February, when he led the WM Phoenix Open on a sponsor’s exemption and tied for third. He followed that performance with a tie for fifth at the Memorial and runner-up at the Travelers Championship, where a double-bogey on the 72nd hole might have cost him his first victory.

Mito Pereira: Pereira might have been Rookie of the Year if he hadn’t collapsed on the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship. Pereira had a 1-shot lead over Justin Thomas and Zalatoris. With a par, he would have become the first player from Chile to win a major and the first PGA Tour rookie to win one in 11 years. Instead, he hit his drive into a creek down the right side of the fairway. He ended up making a double-bogey 6 and tied for third.

Pereira bounced back to tie for seventh at the Charles Schwab Challenge. He tied for 42nd at the FedEx St. Jude Championship.

Comeback Player of the Year

The PGA Tour replaced the Comeback Player of the Year Award with the Courage Award in 2012, which has been given out sporadically. Maybe it’s time to bring back the Comeback Player of the Year in addition, given this year’s leading candidates.

Tiger Woods: When the 15-time major champion was seriously injured in a car wreck outside Los Angeles, many wondered if he would ever walk again, let alone play competitive golf. But less than 14 months after he nearly lost his right leg, Woods returned to competition at the Masters in April.

Woods’ performance in three majors this season won’t be remembered for his scores. They were some of the worst of his career. But he made the cut at the Masters and the PGA Championship (he withdrew after 54 holes at Southern Hills) and fought through pain in his right leg during two of the most difficult walks in golf.

Woods, 46, had circled the 150th Open at St. Andrews, and although he didn’t play well and missed the cut, the celebration wouldn’t have been the same without him there.

Jeff Overton: The Indiana native was a rising star in 2010, when he tied for 11th in The Open and made the Ryder Cup team. A back injury caused him to lose his PGA Tour card after the 2016 season. The next spring, he underwent surgery for a herniated disc. He contracted a spinal infection that nearly killed him.

After recovering, Overton said he didn’t touch a golf club for two years. He made his first start in more than five years on a sponsor’s exemption at the 3M Open.

“It was a fight, it was a struggle,” Overton told reporters at the 3M Open. “But you’ve got to look for the future and that’s what I’m here today doing. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

Ryan Brehm: The former Michigan State star was given one start on a minor medical exemption after he tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to pull out of the 2021 Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

Ranked 773rd in the world, Brehm had to finish solo second in the Puerto Rico Open in March to retain his PGA Tour card, or he would be relegated to the Korn Ferry Tour. With his wife, Chelsey, serving as his caddie, Brehm did better than that, winning for the first time on the PGA Tour with a 6-shot victory. He won $666,000, nearly three times his career earnings, and was granted a two-year exemption.

Caddie of the Year

The PGA Tour doesn’t have an official award for the best looper of the season, but if it’s truly serious about taking better care of everyone in the face of the LIV Golf threat, maybe it’s time to honor the people on the players’ bags.

Ted Scott: Scott helped Bubba Watson win two Masters titles and 10 PGA Tour events during a 15-year ride together. But when Watson was struggling with a wrist injury in September 2021, he encouraged Scott to find another boss.

Scott came out of retirement in November and took over Scheffler’s bag. With a new partner, Scheffler has been the best player in the world and won his own green jacket in April. Scott even helped him count his putts on the 72nd hole at Augusta National.

“I can’t speak highly enough of Ted as a person and as a caddie,” Scheffler said at the Masters. “I respect him so much just as a person. He’s such a fun guy to be around. He’s a man of faith and I love him. I can’t say enough about him. You know, the qualities you look for in a person, Ted embodies pretty much all of them. He’s humble. He’s hard-working. He’s honest. He’s a good time to be around.”

Billy Foster: In more than three decades as a caddie for pros, Foster worked with the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood. Foster’s players won plenty of tournaments, but never the biggest ones.

That changed at the U.S. Open at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, in June, when Matt Fitzpatrick finally got him an elusive major. Not surprisingly, Foster was the one covering up his face after Fitzpatrick’s winning putt.

“Well, normally people have a monkey on their back, but I had a gorilla on my back,” Foster told ESPN’s Michael Collins. “Can’t even think about me not being excited, I’m just like ‘Phew. What a relief.’ After all these years, he’s finally kicked one over the line.”

Jim “Bones” Mackay: Long regarded as one of the best loopers in the game, Mackay left his position with NBC Sports to work with Justin Thomas in September 2021. Mackay, who helped Phil Mickelson pick up five majors during their 25-year partnership, guided JT to a victory at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, which ended his five-year drought without a major victory

“If I was ever going to caddie again this was the time and, unquestionably, this was the player,” Mackay said. “My wife will tell you the person I said I’d leave [NBC Sports] for was Justin Thomas. I think he has more shots than anyone on the tour.”

Ryan Goble/Joel Stock: Goble had been Zalatoris’ caddie during his entire professional career until two weeks ago, when the pair split up midway through the Wyndham Championship. Goble was there for all the near-misses. Stock took over in Memphis last week and helped Zalatoris win for the first time.

Maybe they can split the trophy. Thankfully, Zalatoris listened when Stock advised him not to try to hit his ball near a rock wall on the third playoff hole on Sunday.

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