Predicting If Golf's Top Stars Will Improve or Regress in 2014

James McMahonContributor INovember 15, 2013

Predicting If Golf's Top Stars Will Improve or Regress in 2014

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    As strange as it might seem, the 2014 PGA Tour season is quietly under way, and we've already seen stars such as Dustin Johnson get off to strong starts.

    The majority of the game’s top players, however, really won’t compete in earnest until January, and that’s when we’ll begin to see whose game is ready to take a step forward and whose will slip from the 2013 campaign.

    Can Tiger Woods improve and finally win a 15th major? Will Phil build off his Open Championship and complete the career Grand Slam with a U.S. Open title? Can Adam Scott raise the bar even further after a career year in 2013?

    Those are just a few of the questions surrounding the game’s top stars, some of whom are looking to carry momentum forward from a season ago; others are seeking to rebound from uneven efforts. There’s certainly no science to predicting who among them will rise and who will fall, but we're taking a stab at it nonetheless.

    Every PGA Tour season offers surprising performances, both good and bad, and 2014 will be no exception. That means some of our predictions will hit and others will flounder. Either way, it’s fun to look ahead at what we might expect from the game’s most significant talent.

Bubba Watson: Improve

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    Why He Will Rise

    Since his 2012 Masters victory, Bubba Watson has struggled to show even a glimpse of the form that earned him the green jacket and status as one of the top young American golfers in the game. The Floridian has failed to win a single tournament since that signature victory and managed just three Top 10 showings in 2013 against a trio of missed cuts.

    Watson, however, is showing signs that his focus and swing are getting back to Bubba-like form. After missing the cut at the PGA Championship, Bubba rebounded with a pair of Top 25 finishes in the FedEx Cup playoffs and finished tied for eighth at the World Golf Championship-HSBC Champions event earlier this month.

    If Watson can reasonably avoid trouble off the tee and rely on his power and iron play to score, he will claim at least one PGA Tour victory in 2014 and has a good chance to win multiple. Considering his recent struggles, that would be an improvement to be sure.


    Why He Could Fall

    There are times in competition when it appears Watson would rather be someplace else, doing something different. If that continues next year, Bubba will struggle to put four solid rounds together, especially in the challenging fields of the more important PGA Tour events and major championships.

    Additionally, accuracy is always an issue for the long-hitting Watson, who puts plenty of pressure on himself playing from off of fairways and wide of greens. Like he did at Augusta National nearly two years ago, Watson has the creativity and boldness to escape danger unscathed, but more often than not, he drops shots to the field when he finds trouble off the tee.

    If that continues in 2014, so will his victory drought.


    What to Expect in 2014

    Watson is just too great a talent and too bright a personality not to put things back together sooner rather than later. He’s likely not ready to win a second major next year, but he will capture his fifth career PGA Tour title before the summer.

    The sport is better with players like Watson challenging for titles, and that will become more commonplace in 2014.

Steve Stricker: Regress

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    Why He Will Fall

    Expect Stricker to utilize a similarly scaled-back schedule he employed in 2013 when the American played in only 13 events. What we shouldn't expect is for Stricker to have the type of success he enjoyed with that limited workload next year.

    The world's seventh-ranked player is still a top-notch golfer and unbelievable putter, yet at the age of 46 and with 23 years on the job, it’s fair to wonder just how long he can keep it going at a level good enough to still chase that elusive major championship, much less PGA Tour titles. 

    The downsized workload will certainly help him stay healthy and energized, but there’s no guarantee he will remain as sharp as needed despite what his eight Top 10 finishes last year might suggest.


    Why He Could Rise

    It’s a Ryder Cup year, and it’s a good bet Stricker would relish the opportunity to compete once more in the spirited international event. That extra motivation could be the spark the Wisconsin native needs to keep his fire burning just enough for at least one more year.

    What Stricker lacks in length he more than makes up for in accuracy, touch and deadly putting, meaning he can be a threat on the right course and under ideal playing conditions. That’s a lot that needs to come together, but if it does, Stricker could certainly win a PGA Tour event for the first time in two seasons.

    As unlikely as it sounds, he might even get himself into contention at the right major championship venue such as Valhalla, host of the PGA Championship in August.


    What to Expect in 2014

    As much as Stricker might want to make the American Ryder Cup team, it’s going to be a tall order. A limited schedule, another year on the swing and a surging group of young and talented Americans will make it tough to be sure.

    Stricker will certainly have his moments, but we see a second straight season without a PGA Tour victory coming and waning interest late as his likelihood of making the Ryder Cup dims as the season moves on.

Dustin Johnson: Improve

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    Why He Will Rise

    Despite a victory at the beginning of the season, Johnson’s 2013 campaign was anything but a memorable one. Not only did the South Carolina native fail to win again, he was ultimately left off the United States Presidents Cup team by captain Fred Couples.

    By his own account, missing the international team event and struggling the way he did last year have provided motivation for Johnson, who is looking to realize his vast potential and shed recent disappointments at the same time.

    After a victory at the WGC—HSBC Champions a couple weeks ago that launched his 2014 campaign, it’s clear Johnson is moving in that direction and has his sights set squarely on making the United States Ryder Cup team next fall.


    Why He Could Fall

    Few golfers have the power to dominate a golf course like Johnson can. That said, even fewer can implode as quickly as the world’s No. 12 golfer has shown the ability to.

    Johnson has the mindset to go for the big play, and that tends to get him in trouble at the wrong time in significant events. If that happens in 2014, we’ll see a repeat of his one-win-and-done 2013 campaign.

    The eight-time PGA Tour winner will put himself in contention several times next year; the question he’ll have to answer is whether he can play it safe to win big when the situation dictates it.


    What to Expect in 2014

    Signs point to a major Johnson rebound in 2014, and we are buying into those signals. The talented American will not only win several times on tour (including his HSBC victory) but will also be an integral part of the United States Ryder Cup team next fall.

    It’s a long way from a difficult 2013, but Johnson appears poised to make the turn in very quick order.

Ian Poulter: Improve

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    Why He Will Rise

    Despite finding himself in contention in several big tournaments, including the Open Championship, Poulter finished 2013 without a victory and watched fellow Europeans Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson stage career years.

    It was a disappointing effort for Poulter, who came into last season riding a wave of momentum after his brilliant Ryder Cup performance at Medinah Country Club. It’s also likely a source of motivation for the Englishman as he looks toward a much better 2014 campaign and a march back up the World Golf Rankings.

    There’s no denying Poulter’s talent and flair for the dramatic; he simply must do a better job of putting it together for four straight rounds, especially in the major championships he most covets to win. He registered four Top 10s in 16 starts this past season, including a 2013-best tie for third at the Open Championship.

    He’s already trumped those efforts with a 2014 season-opening second-place showing at the WGC—HSBC Champions event in early November. If he can bring that solid level of play into 2014, Poulter can very quickly earn his first tour title since late 2012.


    Why He Could Fall

    Poulter has never been as long as other top stars, ranking only 136th in driving distance on the PGA Tour in 2013. This past season, he coupled that problem with increasingly wayward driver- and iron-play that put him at only 71st in driving accuracy and a head-scratching 136th in greens in regulation.

    Those issues were the primary culprits to his struggles throughout the year and especially in major championships, which are often played on long, tight venues and under increased pressure.

    There’s not a lot Poulter can do about his length, but if he can’t find more fairways and greens next year, things won’t be improving very much at all for the world No. 15.


    What to Expect in 2014

    Poulter is an extremely creative and talented golfer who should own more than just two PGA Tour victories. If he can straighten out his accuracy issues and lean on his great touch around the greens, he might very well double that total in 2014.

    Poulter, however, is far too unpredictable in major championships to call for a career-defining victory next season. That said, if he can maintain his consistency and put four solid rounds together on the right course, it’s an absolute possibility. 

Jason Dufner: Regress

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    Why He Will Fall

    Dufner is one of the most unique golfers in the sport, and his victory at the PGA Championship was extremely popular among other players and the majority of golf fans. The unexpected triumph turned a disappointing season into a career-making one and lifted the American’s profile significantly.

    All that said, it’s difficult to imagine a repeat performance given the way he played for the entirety of the 2013 campaign. The PGA breakthrough was Dufner’s only victory of the season and managed to miss three cuts along the way.

    Certainly, that’s not to suggest the 2012 Byron Nelson champion isn't a talented golfer with plenty of potential; he's 10th in the world for a reason. It’s reasonable to wonder, however, if he can duplicate his amazing week at Oak Hill Country Club in 2014.

    Expectations rise when golfers win a first major, and considering the totality of Dufner’s effort this past season, they may well prove difficult to achieve.


    Why He Could Rise

    His history-making 63 in the second round of the PGA Championship proves what Dufner can do when he catches fire with his iron-play and putter, and his swing is one that can hold up under pressure.

    While he started slowly in 2013, Dufner posted four Top 10s in addition to his PGA victory, and two of those came in the season-ending FedEx Cup playoffs. In fact, over his final six starts, the American posted four Top 10 finishes, which included his first major victory.

    If Dufner can carry that form into 2014, he’ll have a chance to do much better than just one victory and will maintain the momentum he gathered at Oak Hill in August.


    What to Expect in 2014

    Dufner is one of the most even-keeled golfers on the PGA Tour and won’t be shaken by significantly increased expectations following his PGA win. Given that, the three-time PGA Tour winner is a good bet to win at least once next year.

    The former Auburn standout will challenge in a major or two, but he’ll fall short of adding another to his resume next season, slightly stalling his rise up the world rankings.

Jason Day: Improve

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    Why He Will Rise

    It’s hard to imagine that a player of Day’s skill and talent has just one PGA Tour victory to his credit, but that is indeed the case.

    Despite playing well in numerous majors and other significant events during the past couple years, the 25-year-old Aussie has only the 2010 Byron Nelson to his credit and numerous near-misses possibly wearing on his psyche.

    Yet, what Day lacks in achievement he more than makes up for in potential, which is just bursting to explode. In 2013, he posted seven Top 10 finishes, headlined by strong showings at the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship. He was also a significant contributor in a losing effort at the Presidents Cup this past October.

    With the experience that came from competing so often in 2013, Day should be poised to add to his PGA Tour victory total and is absolutely near the top of a short list of golfers ideally positioned to win a first major championship.


    Why He Could Fall

    It’s certainly a matter of perspective, but one man’s near-miss is another’s inability to close under pressure. When it comes to Day, it’s a fair question as to which best describes him.

    Despite his strong showing in three majors last year, Day is only 20th in the world rankings, and the fact that he has now gone three full seasons on the PGA Tour without a win can’t be ignored.

    If he continues to fall short of another PGA Tour victory and ultimately a major championship triumph, the pressure on Day could mount and weigh on his game at inopportune times as the 2014 season progresses.


    What to Expect in 2014

    Day is simply too good to be held down for much longer, and with the experience he gained this year, he’s absolutely ready to win another PGA Tour title and continue to contend for a first major championship.

    The Aussie is a good bet to claim a second career victory before heading to Augusta National, where he will be among a handful of golfers in contention for a green jacket on Sunday. If he doesn't get it there, watch out for Day at Pinehurst in June.

Matt Kuchar: Regress

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    Why He Will Fall

    With significant victories at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and the Memorial Tournament, Kuchar enjoyed perhaps his best season as a professional in 2013.

    The American was a consistent top three in the FedEx Cup standings for much of the season and finished second at the close of the playoffs. What is missing from his 2013 campaign, however, is a major championship title, much less a true challenge to claim one. The enigmatic golfer’s best showing was a distant tie for eighth at the Masters, his only Top 10 in the four majors.

    At No. 8 in the World Golf Rankings, Kuchar needs more than World Golf Championship titles and PGA Tour victories; he needs a major victory to solidify his place among golf’s elite. That said, his relative lack of success away from Augusta National leaves little reason to believe that might be forthcoming in 2014.


    Why He Could Rise

    Kuchar finished in a tie for seventh at last weekend’s McGladrey Classic, which gets his 2014 campaign off to a solid start. That, coupled with a career best FedEx Cup finish, suggests he could be poised to raise the stature of his game next year.

    If that level of play continues into April, the former Georgia Tech standout will have a strong shot at a career-defining victory at Augusta National given his recent success there. It won’t be his only opportunity for a 2014 breakthrough triumph, but it will absolutely be his best.  


    What to Expect in 2014

    Kuchar will continue to be one of the most consistent golfers on the PGA Tour, and a victory, or even two, are likely for the popular player.

    That said, unless a Masters triumph is in the cards, it’s more likely than not that he’ll end 2014 just as he began it: a solid player without a signature victory on his resume. It’s not a bad thing to be, but it’s likely not what Kuchar ultimately aspires for.

Jordan Spieth: Improve

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    Why He Will Rise

    We've fought the urge to predict a predictable sophomore slump for the 20-year-old Spieth in favor of trusting his unbelievable talent and maturity beyond his years.

    What the former Texas Longhorn accomplished last year after beginning the season without a tour card was nothing short of spectacular. Not only was Spieth the youngest golfer to win a PGA Tour event in 82 years when he captured the John Deere Classic back in July, he recorded a total of nine Top 10 finishes in just 23 starts.

    Given the experience he gained last year, which included playing in two majors and the Presidents Cup, it’s no stretch to believe Spieth will continue his progression in 2014 and ultimately add to his lone PGA Tour title in the process.


    Why He Could Fall

    We dismissed the sophomore slump, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. In less than 12 months, Spieth has earned nearly $4 million and has gone from regional celebrity to national star in a short period of time.

    Undoubtedly, that can be a lot to process and handle for even the most mature athletes, and if the Texan struggles with focus and time management in the wake of his success, it could limit his growth in the short term.


    What to Expect in 2014

    Whatever pressures might be in play, Spieth won’t be sliding backwards next year. In fact, it’s far more likely that he will build upon his unbelievable rookie season than fall short of it.

    While it’s still too soon to call for a major title, Spieth will be in the mix at golf's biggest events a couple times and will get at least one PGA Tour victory along the way as he continues to mature into the great player we expect him to ultimately become.

Justin Rose: Regress

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    Why He Will Fall

    With one grinding U.S. Open victory at Merion Golf Club last June, Rose went from a golfer with unfulfilled potential to greatness finally realized.

    Since that triumph, however, the Englishman has failed to win another tournament on the PGA Tour and wasn't a factor in any other major, low-lighted by a missed cut at the Open Championship less than a month after winning the U.S. Open.

    There’s no question Rose is supremely talented, and claiming at least one PGA Tour victory next year is more likely to happen than not. Yet, the goal for Rose has to be adding to his major championship trophies and climbing the world rankings in 2014.

    We doubt either of those accomplishments is forthcoming in the next nine months or so.


    Why He Could Rise

    Rose nearly won The Barclays back in late August and finished fifth earlier this month at the WGC-HSBC Champions. He is also still a threat to win the Race to Dubai this weekend, which would not only be a financial windfall, but would provide significant momentum heading into next year.

    If Rose plays that well throughout next season, he’ll win more than once on the PGA Tour, and overseas, and will be a consistent factor in all four majors rather than just one at the right time.


    What to Expect in 2014

    It’s not a knock on Rose to say he hasn't matched his U.S. Open performance since his Merion triumph. Considering he waited more than a decade for his first major title, it’s not a surprise he’s fought focus and form at times since.

    By no means will he fall off the map in 2014, but Rose will not add another major to his resume either, meaning his campaign will likely fall short of his 2013 success.

Rory McIlroy: Improve

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    Why He Will Rise

    Truth be told, after the way his 2013 campaign went, there really is nowhere to go but up for McIlroy next year. Not only did Rory fail to win a single tournament last year, he struggled in the majors and lost his world No. 1 ranking to Tiger.

    After taking heat for his work ethic and off-course distractions, McIlroy appears to have cleaned that part of his life up and showed signs that his game was coming together toward the end of the year. The Irishman shot a seven-under 65 to gather the first-round lead at the recent WGC-HSBC Champions and out-dueled Tiger in their one-on-one competition a couple weeks ago.

    Provided he has any lingering issues with his 2013 switch to Nike Clubs behind him, Rory will get back into the winner’s circle next year and will again be a significant threat to win a third major tournament while still in his early 20s.


    Why He Could Fall

    Confidence was a real issue for Rory last year and the criticism he took from the likes of Nick Faldo during his lowest of lows didn't help matters. It's easy to forget McIlroy is only 24 years old and is still developing as a player despite the huge expectations that surround him.

    Last year was difficult, and it could take more than one offseason to get right with his swing and his mind. A slow start in 2014 could bring the same demons back and keep Rory from reaching his real potential for another 12 months or so.


    What to Expect in 2014

    Rory won’t win a major championship next year, but he will compete much better in the big tournaments than he did last year. He will need more time to fully trust his “Nike swing” in the big moments.

    That said, McIlroy will win a couple times on the PGA Tour this year and will be a major contributor to the European Ryder Cup team next fall. That might not measure up to some people's expectations, but it’s a significant improvement over what we saw the past 12 months.

Phil Mickelson: Improve

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    Why He Will Rise

    Phil Mickelson’s British Open triumph this past July was the highlight of the 2013 golf season. It also masked a rather average year for one of the most accomplished and popular golfers on the PGA Tour.

    Mickelson won only one other time—the Waste Management Phoenix Open—and struggled with his game significantly after his come-from-behind victory at Muirfield. Lefty battled his accuracy off the tee, his touch around the greens and seemed overworked by the time the FedEx Cup playoffs came around.

    The five-time major champion has vowed to cut back on his schedule, and an offseason of putting in work and straightening out his driver will do wonders for his confidence. Mickelson might be nearing his mid-40s, but there’s no denying his talent. We should expect to see a more consistent showing in 2014.


    Why He Could Fall

    The lack of energy and focus at the end of the 2013 season was an issue, as was his erratic play off the tee and surprising struggles with the putter. It could be just a hiccup for the three-time Masters champion or the first signs that the shadow of age is creeping up on Mickelson, who will turn 44 next June.

    If Phil can’t find momentum with the flat stick and consistency with his long game, it won’t matter that he’s trimming his schedule; he won’t be able to compete against the growing field of talented golfers like he has done so wonderfully in the past.


    What to Expect in 2014

    It seems as if Mickelson has recognized the need to schedule better and is prepared to ensure his game and health are in top form for the biggest events on the PGA Tour slate. 

    The Hall of Famer is too good a putter to continue to struggle from inside 10 feet, and with renewed energy and focus, he is a strong bet for two or three tour victories.

    More importantly, with the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, Mickelson will have a great shot at completing the career Grand Slam, which would be the crowning achievement of his stellar career.

Henrik Stenson: Regress

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    Why He Will Fall

    No other golfer played better in the second half of the 2013 season than Henrik Stenson, who captured the FedEx Cup title back in September and has a decent shot at adding the Race to Dubai crown this weekend. Stenson also posted top-five finishes at both the British Open and PGA Championship and has risen to No. 3 in the world.

    Matching this type of run, which was highlighted by his FedEx-cementing victory at the Tour Championship at East Lake, will prove a difficult task for the Swede, who, just a couple years ago, was struggling mightily with his game and confidence.

    A significant way to improve upon his 2013 season is to win a major championship—an accomplishment that has evaded Stenson throughout his career. We’re not saying he can’t win one of golf’s biggest events, but if doing so is the only way he can build upon what he’s done this year, that’s a tough measure to achieve.


    Why He Could Rise

    Stenson played well all season but really caught fire in the second half of the campaign. If he can double-down on that play in 2014, he greatly increases his chances for that major championship his resume lacks.

    The key to doing that, as it typically is with Stenson, will undoubtedly rest with his short game. He is among the most accurate drivers in the game and has more than enough power to attack even the longest golf courses.

    But it’s his putting that has lifted Stenson to such heights since July, and that will have to remain the case if the rise is to continue throughout next year.


    What to Expect in 2014

    The world No. 3 will continue to rank among the finest players on both the PGA and European tours, yet doubts linger as to whether his putting is good enough to claim a major championship.

    Stenson will win on both tours in 2014, but he’ll fall short of defending his FedEx crown and will remain in search of the elusive major title when the season is complete. We can’t call that a disappointing season by any measure, but it won’t be what 2013 was.

Adam Scott: Improve

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    Why He Will Rise

    Adam Scott certainly raised the bar on expectations with his breakthrough 2013 season. If anyone is up to the challenge of equaling or exceeding them, it’s the talented and charismatic Aussie.

    After winning the 2013 Masters and challenging down the stretch of both the British Open and PGA Championship, Scott went from unfulfilled potential to one of the top-three or -four golfers in the world. His putting woes suppressed, his sweet swing dialed in and a world of confidence fueling him; the sky is the limit for Scott heading into next year.

    With a green jacket in his trophy case, expectations will be high for Scott to add another major to his resume in 2014, along with a couple PGA Tour titles to boot. If he stays healthy and keeps his putter steady, Scott is a good bet to do both.


    Why He Could Fall

    If Scott struggles to repeat his 2013 effort next year, the culprit could be the pressure on him to do so, but more than likely, it will be his putting that holds him back.

    His strong effort last year, notwithstanding, Scott does have a history of struggles on the greens, and he certainly wouldn't be the first golfer to have putting woes resurface despite a recent run of success.

    If he indeed slips with the putter, it will put extra pressure on the other parts of his game, especially in the biggest tournaments, and that could cost him late in those events.


    What to Expect in 2014

    Scott has perhaps the best golf swing in the game, and he’ll continue to show why many consider him the best player in the sport this side of Tiger and will do so in major championships just as he did last year.

    Scott finally got his coveted first major last year, but he could, even should, have had at least one other before his Masters triumph. He’ll have ample opportunity to make it two in 2014 and almost assuredly add to his 10 career PGA Tour titles along the way.

Tiger Woods: Improve

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    Why He Will Rise

    While not nearly as much as Brandel Chamblee would proclaim, Tiger’s multiple run-ins with rules violations did put a damper on his 2013 season and arguably cost him an opportunity to win a fifth Masters title. Woods, undoubtedly, will pay more attention to the rules on the course moving forward, and that will simplify his life on and off of it.

    He won five times on the PGA Tour last year, largely on courses he’s owned throughout his career, and there’s little evidence to suggest a similar performance isn't forthcoming in 2014. That said, it’s still about the majors for Woods, and 2014 provides solid opportunities for Tiger to end his confounding drought in golf’s biggest events.

    Woods has played well at each of this year's four host venues and owns victories at Augusta National and Valhalla Golf Club, host of the PGA Championship. The 14-time major winner also has a pair of top-five finishes at Pinehurst No. 2, the site of the U.S. Open in June.


    Why He Could Fall

    Tiger hasn't won a major championship since 2008 and patience is all but gone to see him claim that elusive 15th. The world No. 1 will be 38 next year, so there’s time to get his chase of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors going again, but nagging injuries and the rise of exciting young talent are growing barriers to the effort.

    Given that, the pressure to win another one will be at an all-time high for the world’s top player, and striking out again in 2014 would be a significant setback for Woods regardless of how many regular tour titles he claims.


    What to Expect in 2014

    Tiger is simply too good and the opportunities to win majors in 2014 too golden for him not to finally breakthrough. In fact, it wouldn't surprise us to see Tiger win a pair of them to cut his Nicklaus deficit in half, beginning with a fifth green jacket next April.

    Just for good measure, the game’s top talent will win another five or six PGA Tour events, a third FedEx Cup crown and yet another Player of the Year award along the way.