Mickelson dazzled us with his start, winning twice in Arizona, his adopted home, and he was on top of the money list for most of the year. Only Nick Price and Wayne Levi have won four times in a year during the 1990s. (Price did it twice, winning five times in '94 after a four-win year in '93.) Mickelson spread out his wins over the year—two in January, one in May and one in August. In '96 the lefthander finally made the leap from good player to major force.
"I feel like I accomplished a couple of things, including improving my Thursday and Friday scoring average, which gave me a lot more opportunities on the weekend. Consequently I ended up winning more tournaments," Mickelson says. "I wasn't really happy with the way my career had gone, although I had won every year. I didn't feel I was as consistent as I needed to be, so I worked a lot harder on my game this year."
Why he should get your vote: Mickelson beat the best on a hard course at the World Series of Golf, and four wins is four wins—at least one more than anyone else. Why he shouldn't get your vote: The fields in Tucson, Phoenix and Irving, Texas, places he also won, weren't particularly strong. Like the Tour Championship, the World Series has a limited field. If you haven't won a major, do you deserve to be player of the year? And while he had two top 10s in majors, one was a third at the Masters (you mean Faldo and Norman weren't the only ones on the course on Sunday at Augusta?) and the other was a discouraging weekend fade to a tie for eighth at the PGA.
Brooks, the gritty Fort Worth native, never backs down and seldom backs off when he's in the lead. Like Mickelson, he spread out his good play over the entire year. He won three times—the Hope in January, the Shell Houston Open in May and his first major, the PGA, in August. He also made the Presidents Cup team.
"I'm very pleased with my year," Brooks says. "I think I've continued to improve. You can use stroke average or whatever barometer you want, I know I'm a better player than I was five or six years ago."
Why he should get your vote: Brooks won a major and had no extended stretches of bad play despite playing 31 tournaments. Lehman would have won at least six times if he were as good a closer as Brooks. Why he shouldn't get your vote: Brooks wasn't as consistent as Lehman. Brooks is not in the top 12 in scoring, and he has let up since winning the PGA at Valhalla. When it was time to make a run at Mickelson for player of the year, in September and October, Brooks couldn't make it happen. Finally, three wins is one less than four.
There was another candidate, a long shot worth mentioning. He needed to win the Tour Championship to have a chance, unless bonus points are awarded for impact. In that case Tiger Woods would've been all-world. Woods won twice in three weeks after turning pro in September, and instead of simply securing a Tour card for '97, he had a shot at finishing among the top 10 on the money list.
Did somebody say impact player? On Monday, Oct. 21, 24 hours after Woods earned a spot in the Tour Championship by winning the Disney, Oklahoma had a bad hair day. The wind cut like a chain saw, rain splattered like a shotgun blast and the temperature struggled to hit 40. West of Tulsa, in the desolate Oklahoma panhandle, eight inches of snow fell, but it didn't matter. The phones at the Tour Championship's office rang like the lines at a Public Broadcasting Service auction. "Let's go to the A Board. The first item up forbid, two tickets to Thursday's first round to-watch Tiger play with Brad, Faxon...."
Calls about tickets came from California, Canada and Mexico. Last-minute requests for press credentials came from Boston, New York, Houston, Atlanta and other cities where the Tour Championship was suddenly newsworthy.
Woods's effect was felt inside the ropes too. "Every time someone comes along and elevates the game a bit," says Lehman, "the guys who are already up there—guys like Couples, Faldo, Mickelson and Norman—aren't going to like it. They don't want to get beat by Tiger all the time. They're going to work harder. They won't want to take a backseat. Guys out here have egos. Everywhere you go, you're written about and the focus of attention. Now there's a new kid on the block and it's, 'Hey, what about me?' Nobody likes to be yesterday's news."