Shane Ryan: At Conway Farms, more than just the BMW Championship is up for grabs

In Illinois this weekend, the PGA Tour Player of the Year is on the line...


The race for PGA Tour Player of the Year — an award that isn’t as valuable as a major, but is more prestigious than you might think — seemingly comes down to four men: Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama.

Here’s Spieth, from a couple weeks ago, on what winning the prize means to him:

“It’s an MVP award. You are the best player at what you do at the highest level… It’s the most important end-of-the-season award I think you can win.”

And if it matters to someone like Spieth, who has three majors under his belt already, you can bet it matters just as much to the others.

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Matsuyama and Johnson are the underdogs, for the simple fact that they didn’t win a major this season, but either one has a shot to steal it out from under Spieth or Thomas’ nose with a strong finish to the FedExCup playoffs, which resume this week at the BMW Championship in Illinois.

Matsuyama has two World Golf Championships and the Phoenix Open to his credit, while DJ has the other two WGCs, Riviera, and the first event of the playoffs, which he won in a playoff against Spieth (he also won this week’s event, on the same course, last year).

Of course, Spieth and Thomas have something the others don’t – and it’s a big something: a major.

Spieth has two previous Tour titles to his credit, but Thomas, the true frontrunner, has three regular Tour crowns and a FedExCup playoff win. Combine that victory two weeks ago with his PGA Championship win, and the all-important recency bias favours him by quite a lot.

It’s hard in golf to rely on a classic mano-a-mano duel of the kind we get to see so often in tennis—we’re still waiting on that Spieth-Rory battle, and we went two decades without getting a legitimate Tiger-Phil clash—but with four players in the mix, it’s a good bet that at least two of them will be vying for the third leg of the playoffs this weekend.

The question is: Does it really matter?

Sure, Spieth cares about the award, but history dictates that the eyes of the sports world are on golf just four times per year at the majors. The PGA Tour has made a big push recently to increase focus on the playoffs, and they’ve thrown quite a bit of money at the problem—$10 million to the winner. It’s created some buzz, but to say it has infiltrated the general sports consciousness—especially in a time that coincides in America with the start of college and professional football—would be wishful thinking.

Still, for true golf fans, this is an excellent cherry on top of a compelling season. With the summer gone, but the offseason still two weeks away, the players are in peak form, and it’s likely that in the next two weeks we’ll witness the best pure golf of the season. 

With the field reduced to the 70 best players on Tour, there are no duds. The pace of play is faster, the rounds are shorter, and the birdies are plentiful. If it’s dramatic endings you like, there hasn’t been a better finish in 2017 than DJ driving the ball over the lake at the 18th hole two weeks ago to finish off Jordan Spieth after burying a clutch putt to force a playoff. These are days for the true fans, and the casual viewer who stops by won’t be disappointed.

Here are three picks for the weekend:

Jordan Spieth – 6/1

Boring, because he’s the favorite, but after the close loss to DJ in the first playoff leg and yet another second-place finish to his friend Justin Thomas in the second leg, the man is hungry for another win. He wants that award, and losing to Thomas was a mighty blow—in order to get his nose ahead, he has to win both this week and next. No golfer on the planet is more dangerous than a hungry Jordan Spieth, his form is tip-top, and I expect to see some of those vintage 25-footers fall from the sky at Conway Farms Golf Club.

Jon Rahm – 12/1

If there’s one player this year who has seemed constantly on the verge of breaking through, it’s Jon Rahm. He won in January at the Farmers Insurance Open, and has made 14 of 16 cuts since. With a third- and fourth-place finish so far in the playoff events, his game as good as its been, and he’s just a few lucky breaks from winning this weekend and putting himself in position to take the $10 million prize in Atlanta.

In fact, with the playoff events weighted so heavily, he’s currently fifth in the standings, which means that if he stays there, he won’t have to rely on maths next week—it will be a simple “win and get the $10 million” scenario. That makes this weekend’s results enormous, and you can count on Rahm’s hot streak to continue.

Brooks Koepka – 28/1

We’re on the lookout for some clarity in the player of the year race, so it would be just like golf to confuse the issue. Conway Farms is a course that rewards long hitters, and Koepka is certainly that. He also won the U.S. Open this year, and will be looking to finish the season on a high note. At 28/1, he’s a sneaky good pick. If nothing else, you should always count on this sport to muddle a clear-cut issue, and a Koepka win could start to raise questions about a dark horse player of the year candidate…and make the championships in Atlanta even more fun.

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What do you think?