Player of the year race should soon be decided as playoffs begin this week

August 24, 2011

The FedEx Cup “playoffs” are once again upon us. No use kvetching about the confusing nature of the points system — that’s sooo 2008. In this post-Tiger world, the Cup assumes even more importance. A season of parity has thus far lacked definition. Four first-time major champions, two world No. 1s who are majorless, a bumper crop of rookies who have broken through with wins — it’s been a fun, frantic year, but we need the Cup to tie together all the storylines. Four big-time tournaments in five weeks will, hopefully, leave us with not only some indelible highlights but also a consensus player of the year.

There’s a good chance the POY will come out of the featured pairing of the Barclays first two rounds, the threeball of Luke Donald, Keegan Bradley, and, in a supporting role, Phil Mickelson. Donald arrives comfortably ensconced at No. 1 in the world, with a Tour-best 10 top-10s (in a mere 14 starts) and leading in scoring average and money while sitting fourth in FedEx Cup points. Donald has three worldwide victories this year, but only one has come on the PGA Tour — his signature domination of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. But that was way back in February. The tidy Englishman needs a strong FedEx Cup not only to bolster his POY candidacy but also to keep alive his pursuit of history. He’s trying to become the first player to win the FedEx Cup and the European tour’s Race to Dubai in the same season. Donald has a healthy lead in the Dubai standings over second-place Charl Schwartzel.

Right now the fresh-faced Bradley probably has a stronger case to be voted POY by his peers. He’s certainly captured the imagination of the public. “Today a kid asked me to sign his forehead,” he said on Tuesday. “That was weird.”

En route to the Barclays, Bradley, 25 , stopped by New York City to hang with the golf team at his alma mater, St. John’s. He teed it up with the boys and even spent a night at the team’s brick “golf house,” kicking an undergrad out of his own bed.

A large, rowdy contingent of Johnnies will be enlivening Plainfield Country Club, which is an easy drive down the New Jersey Turnpike from New York. The win at the PGA made Bradley a star — his newest text buddy is his boyhood idol Tom Brady — but even before that breakthrough he was having a very solid season, with nine other top-25 finishes , most significantly a playoff win at the Byron Nelson Classic. Among this season’s multiple winners — bonus points if you can name Mark Wilson, Bubba Watson, Nick Watney, and Steve Stricker — Bradley is the only one with a major championship victory. Fifth in FedEx points, he can be golf’s big story of 2011 with a rousing Cup.

Bradley is also at the center of one of the season’s primary subplots, the rise of the long putter. Five of the top 17 in the Cup standings use an oversized wand, and the numbers are going up seemingly by the week.

Stately old Plainfield is only 6,964 yards; its primary defenses are the wicked greens, multi-tiered and very “slopey,” to use Donald’s term. “You have to hit it below the hole or else you could make yourself look silly,” he said.

With putting paramount, the bellies and the broomhandles will only get more attention. Jim Furyk, the defending FedEx Cup champion, is one of the many players who have recently resorted to a belly putter. The question of whether or not anchoring a putter against one’s body confers an advantage is gaining momentum, and Furyk addressed it on Tuesday. “Ten years ago, no one ever went to the belly putter unless they couldn’t putt,” he said. “So I didn’t really think of it as unfair. I thought of it as desperation.” Now it’s considered an easier way to putt under pressure, thanks in part to Bradley’s heroics.

Says Webb Simpson, who uses a belly putter and comes into the Cup third in the points standings after winning the Wyndham Championship last week:”Guys are talking about banning the putters. I think it’s pretty crazy. Because if it was so easy, why isn’t everybody using it?”

If an oversized putter helps propel a player to the Cup’s $10 million first prize, expect the blowback to intensify.