Scheffler vs. Rahm? The Player of the Year race offers an intriguing debate in what makes for a ‘better’ season

ATLANTA — Consistency or potency? The two-horse race for the PGA Tour’s 2023 Player of the Year honor will essentially come down to those criteria as tour members cast their votes after the Tour Championship.

Does Scottie Scheffler, who won the WM Phoenix Open and the Players Championship while amassing 17 top-10 finishes in 23 events, deserve the Jack Nicklaus Award? Or should it go to Jon Rahm, winner of four titles, two of which came back-to-back and one of which was the Masters for his second career major title?

“It depends what you value,” Rory McIlroy, a three-time winner of the award, said earlier in the week at East Lake. “I think it could come down to this week and who performs.”

It’s unlikely, however, that the results from the Tour Championship will influence players’ votes. Scheffler coughed up a two-shot pre-tournament lead to finish T-6 at 11 under. Rahm stumbled with a 74 Sunday to finish T-18 at seven under.

That’s not to take away from either player’s incredible season-long accomplishments.

Scheffler, 27, finished outside the top 12 just three times in his fourth season on tour. He also shared second at the PGA Championship and finished third at the U.S. Open. Rahm, 28, had two runner-up results, one of which was a T-2 at the Open Championship, while he posting a T-10 at the U.S. Open. For the season, the Spaniard had 10 top-10s.

While Scheffler has fewer wins, he ranked No. 1 in strokes gained/off the tee. He was also the best when approaching the green, gaining 1.3 strokes on the field per round with his irons. No other player, including No. 2 Collin Morikawa, gained more than 1.0. The 2.74 strokes Scheffler gained from tee to green was second only to Tiger Woods’ 2006 season, when he averaged 2.98 strokes.

“He’s hit the ball as good, if not better, than Tiger hit it in 2000, which is the benchmark for all of us,” McIlroy said.

But the Nicklaus Award is not about the ball-striker of the year. For many, it’s about winning, and majors weigh most heavily when casting their votes. Rahm has more of both this year.

“Because Rahm won a major and how hot Rahm’s year was, winning four alone in the calendar year and in the first four months, this year it’s got to be Rahmbo,” Tony Finau said at East Lake. “I still believe the hardest thing to do on tour is win; the second hardest thing is consistency. I’ve got to go with the guy who is winning more than the guy who is consistent.”

Added McIlroy: “Scottie’s won twice this year, Jon’s won four times. Jon’s won the Masters, Scottie’s won the Players. I think Jon probably has a little more to show for his year.”

But it’s not quite that clear. Rickie Fowler for one was still trying to make up his mind, sounding like he was leaning toward the consistency camp.

“If someone won two majors and another event and missed every other cut compared to someone who won three regular events and then played solidly throughout, you’d probably pick the one with the more consistent record,” Fowler said. “There’s such a value on majors, and that’s what you want to have a nice number in on your résumé at the end of your career, but I think a lot more goes into the overall package of consistent play. You can argue both sides.”

We’ll see which way more PGA Tour pros decided to lean when the winner next month.

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