Ladies and gentlemen, meet your 1996 PGA Tour Player of the Year...Phil Mickelson.
Correction, Mark Brooks.
Sorry, it's actually Tom Lehman.
All right, it's a photo finish. Hold all tickets, please. We have a three-man dead heat, compliments of last week's—check that, this week's—Tour Championship at Tulsa's Southern Hills, the season's grand finale. With a $3 million purse and an elite field of the top 30 money winners, the Tour Championship is supposed to end all debate on such things as player of the year. But then Lehman pancaked the field, and instead of Final Jeopardy! the tournament became POTPOURRI for $540,000, Alex. That left it to us to sort out who's who in '96, which shouldn't be any tougher than cleaning up after the New York Yankees' ticker-tape parade.
This much is certain: When the rain finally cleared on Monday and Lehman's delayed, six-stroke win over Brad Faxon was completed, the above-mentioned first prize vaulted Lehman over Mickelson and enabled him to win the Palmer Trophy for finishing on top of the money list. His dominance at man-eating Southern Hills—Lehman had no score higher than 67 in the first three days—also paid a hidden dividend. The only player to break par in the first two rounds, Lehman topped himself with another of his Saturday specials. His third-round 65 at the U.S. Open and the 64 he put up on Saturday at the British Open were already among the best rounds of the year. But the 64 he un-leashed in Tulsa, in addition to providing a Clintonesque lead over Faxon and Vijay Singh ("I've never been nine shots back...and been in second place," Faxon said), allowed Lehman to pull away from Mark O'Meara and win the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average. Finally, Lehman earned enough points in Tulsa to lock up the PGA of America's Player of the Year award.
But it is the PGA Tour Player of the Year, voted on by the players and announced in January, which the pros covet, and Lehman's performance in Tulsa, coupled with his British Open victory over Nick Faldo at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, injected him into what had been a two-man race between Mickelson and Brooks. Add up the whole package and Lehman, a self-effacing Minnesotan, looks suspiciously like our BAP—Best American Player.
"Player of the year means a lot to me," says Lehman, whose closing 71 gave him a 12-under-par 268 in the Tour Championship. "I think it means a lot to anyone. It's voted on by your peers—that's what's so special about it. If 200 guys on Tour vote and say, 'Tom Lehman was the best player in 1996,' that's a pretty strong statement. I've been to the awards ceremony and have seen Freddie Couples and Greg Norman accept that award and thought, Man, it sure would be nice to go up and get that big crystal bowl."
Is Lehman going to win the vote? Should he? If not, who should? That depends on whether you like your bread toasted on only one side or prefer Coke to Pepsi. It's a matter of taste. Let's take a look at the contenders.
Lehman, the British Open champion, had an awfully solid year. On the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open, he was a par away from forcing a playoff. He was in position to win way more than anyone else on Tour, as evidenced by his five top-three and 13 top-10 finishes in 23 starts. Consistency counts, and Lehman was consistently strong. Why he should get your vote: Nobody played better in the majors (his worst finish was 18th in the Masters), he won the money and scoring titles, his wins came on great courses, and he played a leading role at the Presidents Cup. Why he shouldn't get your vote: Mickelson had twice as many wins, and Lehman had to beat only 29 players, maybe half of whom were still motivated at the end of October in Tulsa.