LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Luke Donald can only hope that shooting 30 on his last nine holes to win at Disney was the hard part.
His sole reason for entering the final PGA Tour event of the year was to keep alive his bid to become the first player to win the money title on both sides of the Atlantic. The bonus of capturing the PGA Tour money title was that it surely would make him the frontrunner, if not the overwhelming favorite, as player of the year.
Donald was better than everyone on the PGA Tour in two of the most relevant categories — money and scoring average. He and six others tied for most wins (two). Of that group, only Keegan Bradley won a major.
More telling is that in 14 of his 19 tournaments, Donald finished in the top 10. That’s a rate of 74 percent, a level of consistency matched only by Tiger Woods in the last 15 years. There’s a reason he has been No. 1 in the world since May.
And if that’s not enough, Disney provided a rare head-to-head competition with Donald and Webb Simpson playing in the same group all four days. In a winner-take-all situation, Donald birdied six straight holes on the back nine to win.
The ballots go out in two weeks, after the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, where the only person who could possibly cloud the decision is Bradley. Even though he has missed 10 cuts and only has four top 10s, he could attract votes with three wins, including a major and a World Golf Championship.
Either way, picking the winner is not as easy as it should be.
Remember, this is a vote of the players.
Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that as PGA Tour members start deliberating on player of the year, EA Sports announced the winners of a contest in which fans voted to determine who would join Woods on the cover of its next video game. The winners were Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy, two of the most popular young players in the game.
The hope is that player voting doesn’t turn into a popularity contest, too.
A year ago, Fowler was chosen PGA Tour rookie of the year over McIlroy in a vote that made little sense. Fowler finished only four spots ahead of McIlroy in the money list (No. 22 to No. 26), but failed to win a tournament. McIlroy not only shot 62 on the last day to win at Quail Hollow, he finished third in two majors.
Then again, the case could be made that Fowler was a true rookie devoted exclusively to the PGA Tour, while McIlroy was in his third full year as a pro and spent most of his time on the European Tour.
Could something like that happen again?
Robert Garrigus said he had made up his mind before the tournament even started last week.
“I would vote for Webb,” he said. “I mean, he’s had such an unbelievable year. If you look at how many top 10s he’s made (12), it’s almost more than some guys have played in tournaments. What has he made, $6 million? That’s Tiger money, and that’s pretty special.
“And not taking anything away from anything Luke has done, but it’s pretty neat to see an American do that — finally.”
So much for looking at performance over passport on the PGA Tour.
Then there was Scott Gutschewski, who played with Donald and Simpson in the final round at Disney and witnessed a performance that he described several times simply as “awesome.”
Does this clear up who wins player of the year? Gutschewski suddenly was at a loss for words.
“Is he the best player in the world? Probably,” he said almost begrudgingly. “Playing part-time on the PGA Tour, does he get the player of the year? It’s a good argument. It’s a tough call.”
Just because Donald is English does not make him a part-time player.
The NCAA champion from Northwestern has been a regular in America since 1997. He has two homes, none in England — one is his primary residence outside Chicago, the other in south Florida. Donald has averaged 20.5 starts a year since his rookie season in 2002. Not even Woods plays that many.
The rookie vote last year also took place after Europe won the Ryder Cup (again). Is that a factor? It shouldn’t be, but with so much attention on the rise of world golf — particularly European golf — there has been a noticeable “us against them” mentality among some Americans.
“Obviously when it comes to voting, there’s going to be some leniency toward your friends,” Donald said. “There’s still more American players on the U.S. tour, and I’m sure Rickie has more followers and peers that follow him on the U.S. tour. Again, it’s a vote, so it’s totally subjective.”
Donald was asked if he could make a case for anyone else as player of the year, an awkward question in the immediate aftermath of the most gratifying win of his career.
“Not sure I could at the moment,” he said. “I think I’ve answered everyone’s questions.”
No matter what happens in Shanghai, the lasting image when it comes to player of the year should be Disney.
Except for two majors — Charl Schwartzel making birdie on his last four holes to win the Masters, McIlroy obliterating the scoring record at the U.S. Open to win by eight — Donald’s final round at Disney might have been the best performance of the year.
Forget for a moment that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck presented him the bronze trophy.
It’s a rare occasion in golf when a player knows an opportunity might never come along again, and it’s win or else. Think back to Woods in the 2001 Masters attempting to become the only player to hold all four professional majors.
That’s why Donald’s win at Disney rates so high. A chance like this might not come along again, and he seized it in a manner expected of the No. 1 player in the world.
It was the kind of performance only seen from Woods at the height of his game.
Think of it this way. What if it had been Woods who, in the final tournament of the year that he had to win, shot 30 on the back nine? What if it had been Woods who had as many wins as anyone else, including a World Golf Championship? What if it had been Woods who won the money title and the Vardon Trophy and had 74 percent of his finishes in the top 10?
Would there even be a discussion?