Rory McIlroy was asked before the Tour Championship began if he could build a case for himself if he were to win the FedEx Cup, and he did a reasonable job answering. He would have three victories, same as Brooks Koepka. He would have top-10 finishes in 74% of his PGA Tour starts (14 of 19). Yes, Koepka won a major at the PGA Championship and was runner-up in two others (along with a tie for fourth). But is player of the year about certain weeks or the entire season?
And then he stopped himself. "It's like I'm sitting up here trying to make an argument for myself to win," he said with a smile. The conversation returned four days later when McIlroy sat next to the silver FedEx Cup trophy after overcoming a five-shot deficit at the start of the Tour Championship based on his seeding (No. 5), and a one-shot deficit to Koepka in the final round.
It was quite a statement. And he all but waved the white flag when it came to the vote. "I know it's going to sting because he most likely will win the player of the year," McIlroy said. "But he didn't win the FedEx Cup, so I know it's going to sting him for a bit. But I just wanted to tell him he's playing so good. He's the No. 1 player in the world and he's had a great season."
It would be a shock if Koepka didn't win. Jack Nicklaus (twice), Tiger Woods (twice) and Jordan Spieth (2015) are the only other players to win a major and not finish out of the top 5 in the others. Koepka's other two victories included a World Golf Championship, where he rallied from a one-shot deficit against McIlroy.
Koepka also won the money title, which the PGA Tour no longer awards, but it is no less relevant. In the last 20 years, 15 players who won the money title were also voted player of the year. Of the five who didn't win the money title, three had won two majors that year (Mark O'Meara in 1998, Padraig Harrington in 2008, Koepka in 2018). Another was Jim Furyk, who won three times and the FedEx Cup in 2010 and finished about $100,000 short of Matt Kuchar on the money list. The other was Woods, second to Vijay Singh on the money list with one more victory in nine fewer tournaments.
So it shouldn't even be a discussion, right? However, McIlroy won The Players Championship, which the PGA Tour considers a major without actually calling it one. It counts the same as a major in Hall of Fame criteria. Winning is worth a five-year exemption. That's the way it should be. It has the deepest field on a worthy course that favors no particular style.
But it's not a major, and a vote for Koepka might illustrate that. McIlroy won the Tour Championship — and the FedEx Cup, which the PGA Tour promotes for 11 months — against the hottest 30 players on tour. That tops Koepka winning a World Golf Championship, always a strong field, but this one reduced to 63 players because it was a week after the British Open.
The body of work favors McIlroy. His victory allowed him to win the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average for the season (Koepka finished fourth). Also in McIlroy's favor is the consistency of his great year. McIlroy only twice finished out of the top 20 in the 17 tournaments he finished (he missed two cuts). Koepka had 10 finishes out of the top 20 in the 20 events he finished (he only missed one cut).
It's a strong case for McIlroy. Except for the majors. Along with winning the PGA Championship for the second straight year — Woods is the only other play to win back-to-back at the PGA in stroke play — Koepka finished one shot behind Woods at the Masters and chased Gary Woodland to the end at Pebble Beach before finishing second at the U.S. Open.
He tied for fourth in the British Open, nine shots behind Shane Lowry. McIlroy had only a pair of top 10s in the majors, and the biggest blow was missing the cut at the British Open at Royal Portrush in his native Northern Ireland.
Majors matter. All four of them. As for rookie of the year? Sungjae Im was the only PGA Tour rookie to reach the FedEx Cup finale, but is that what matters to players? It did in 2015 when Daniel Berger was the only rookie at East Lake, and Justin Thomas missed out by five points. Neither of them won a tournament this year.
Im didn't win, though not from a lack of effort. He played 35 times. Matthew Wolff won in Minnesota about a month after he left Oklahoma State. Collin Morikawa was runner-up by one shot in Minnesota, and then he won the Barracuda Championship opposite a World Golf Championship.
What means more to the voting players? Getting to East Lake or hoisting a trophy? Voting ends on Sept. 6. The PGA Tour historically does not release the outcome, preferring to keep the emphasis on who wins instead of who doesn't.
Just as well. This is one time the tour might want to keep the vote private.