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U.S. money title, POY races create real buzz for Fall finish

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley is another name in the Player of the Year discussion. (AP)  
PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley is another name in the Player of the Year discussion. (AP)  

Heath Slocum actually stopped in his tracks.

Granted, it's a head-scratcher of a question, and has been for the past few weeks, but it's rare that a PGA Tour pro on his way to the tee box to start his round for the day will actually hit the brakes so abruptly, then wheel on a heel.

Slocum, the defending champion at this week's McGladrey Classic, was asked a passing question shortly before a round at last week's event outside San Jose. Passing, in that he was walking past and stopped cold to mull the query.

To wit: If the player ballots were mailed today, who would get his vote for the PGA Tour Player of the Year? A half-dozen players have two wins, no clear favorite has emerged, and Slocum was nearly dumbstruck by the quandary.

"Wow, that's a good one," he said. "This is as close as it's been since I've been out here. Yeah, really, that's a very good question."

There's a great chance this week's tournament at Sea Island, Ga., will provide some illumination -- with a chance of some serious glare next week at Disney World, the tour's official season finale.

Rising American standout Webb Simpson, who has won twice in the past two months, added the McGladrey this week because he's $68,971 behind money-list leader Luke Donald, who isn't playing and spent the past two weeks on the European Tour, where he's also a member.

Donald is No. 1 in the world ranking and the money lists on both tours -- the latter would represent a first for a double member if he can retain the lead on two continents -- and hasn't yet committed to playing again in the States. But he's clearly intrigued by the possibility.

"We're still talking about next week," Jon Wagner, Donald's agent at IMG, said Tuesday.

If one or both of them play next week, the 5-year-old Fall Series would have its most compelling storyline ever. While a slew of veterans sweat it out to stay inside the top 125 in earnings to remain fully exempt for 2012, Simpson and Donald could be slugging it out for the money title, which carries a five-year exemption.

The guys grinding to retain their cards would be relegated to undercard status, so to speak.

Moreover, whoever wins the cash dash could take a major step toward securing the PGA Tour Player of the Year honors. Donald has been the best player this season globally, no question, but he only has one victory in the States, and nobody has ever won the U.S. tour's top-player award with just one PGA Tour victory in a season.

"I guess if I had to vote right now," Slocum said, "it would be for Luke Donald, just based on his entire body of work."

A completely defensible position, but if the 26-year-old Simpson blows past him this week, it could change by Sunday night. Interestingly, Donald has until Friday to commit to Disney, which means he won't know exactly where he stands relative to Simpson in earnings at the time.

Simpson can slide past Donald by finishing 15th or better, which ensures he would make at least $72,000. He played at the inaugural McGladrey event last year and finished T12, earning $84,000. He's been listed as the outright tournament favorite this week by Las Vegas at 12-1.

"I was talking to my wife about it, if you win the money list, you're probably added to a list of maybe 50 guys," Simpson said. "It would be a pretty prestigious list to be a part of."

The money leader receives the Arnold Palmer Trophy -- Simpson attended Wake Forest on the scholarship named after the iconic legend and has spoken to him a few times at Bay Hill, where Simpson first played while still in college. Palmer attended Wake Forest too.

"You get anything with his name on it, it's got to be pretty special," Simpson said.

Donald, meanwhile, is watching, waiting ... and still traveling. His wife, Diane, is in Chicago and due to deliver the couple's second child next month. Donald, who played last week in Madrid and finished T11, is headed back to London this weekend for the wedding of his caddie, John McLaren.

So, if Donald plays Disney, he's going to need a new sideman for the week too, adding another potentially interesting wrinkle to what has generally been a fairly uninteresting stretch of the season.

"That's one of the things we're working on," Wagner said.

Donald is acutely aware of what's on the table -- two huge hunks of history. No dual member has ever won the money titles on both the PGA and European circuits, and he still holds a comfortable lead on the latter heading down the stretch to the tour's rich Race to Dubai finale later this fall.

Donald told reporters last week he hasn't yet ruled out the possibility of adding Disney, and neither has Simpson. It's no surprise they're the one running neck and neck -- Donald and Simpson are running 1-2 in seasonal scoring too, though Donald has all but clinched the prestigious Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted average already.

Simpson has been creeping up on Donald all fall, winning the Wyndham and Deutsche Bank events after missing the cut at the PGA Championship. But after this week, Donald will have made seven fewer PGA Tour starts than Simpson.

"You know, I wasn't sure if I was going to play, but Luke played well all year, and since I started making a run for the money title, it became pretty important to me to win," Simpson said Wednesday. "You know, it's similar to the Tour Championship -- it's hard not to focus on [the money].

"But we're just trying to go out and play as well as we can, and if we win the golf tournament, it makes it all the better."

No matter what Donald decides, Simpson could quite possible add some clarity to the Player of the Year Award too. PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley, Donald and Simpson are the frontrunners in the minds of most players.

At the moment, anyway. Something as important as the money title could be a deal-making deciding factor.

"I think you could argue [several] guys pretty easily right now," Simpson said. "My caddie and I are going back and forth."

Depending on how Simpson and Donald dial in their late October itineraries, so could the most-money and top-player trophies, adding a splash of panache to a portion of the season that surely can use it.

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