Validation for Tiger; missed chance for others

His knee hurt so bad that he began the year on the couch, unable to hit even a sand wedge.

His driving woes were so noticeable that at one point he went back to an old model no longer on the market.

His play in the major championships was so lackluster that he was a Sunday contender at just one, the British Open, where he bogeyed two of the final four holes to lose by two shots.

In fact, guys named Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel won majors, while he did not.

He didn't even win the money title. For the most part, this was considered an "off'' year.

So what does it say that Tiger Woods is still the PGA Tour Player of the Year?

He had, arguably, his second-worst season as a pro, while three others had career years, and he still could not be denied.

Woods was voted the top player for the fifth straight year and sixth time in his seven years as a pro. But while each of the previous honors was all but conceded with a slew of tournaments still to play, this year's award was a mystery until announced on SportsCenter on Monday night.

Although the exact numbers were not disclosed, it's safe to say this was closer than it's ever been for Woods, who led the PGA Tour with five victories, including two in World Golf Championship events.

Nobody could have argued with Vijay Singh as Player of the Year, or Mike Weir, or Davis Love III. All had their flaws, but they certainly had compelling reasons for votes. Singh won the money title, Weir won the Masters, Love won the Players Championship.

Woods, however, won more times on the PGA Tour than any other player in 2003 and had the lowest stroke average. Ultimately, wins are the most important, and winning more than the rest is hard to ignore. If there was any doubt, all you had to do was look at scoring average: Tiger's was the second-lowest of his career (68.41). That is a better gauge than money or top-10s because it is the ultimate measurement of how one played.

But because Woods did not win a major championship in 2003 -- which he had done every year of his pro career except 1998, the last time he did not win Player of the Year -- the door was left ajar.

And nobody was able to kick it down, despite the opportunity.

Weir had three victories before mid-April -- including The Masters -- and posted top-10s at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. But Weir was virtually a non-factor after the PGA, when one more victory could have sealed the Player of the Year for him.

Love had four victories heading into the PGA, including the Players Championship, which all the players view as the next best thing to a major. He shot a closing 64 to win the tournament, then played some excellent golf despite harrowing personal circumstances. But, like Weir, Love could not get that one victory toward the end of the season that might have made a difference. He played more to go after the money title but was foiled by Singh.

Singh won his first PGA Tour money title at age 40 and had four victories. But only one of them was with Woods in the field and had he been able to add another victory to tie Woods in that category, there is a good chance he would have won the award. Singh also earned an average of $90,230 less per tournament and played nine more events than Woods.

Woods did not add any events at the end of the season to try and claim the money title, which would have been a record-setting fifth in a row. He made it clear that having the most money was not a priority.

"If it was, I would have played 25, 30 events,'' Woods said during the Tour Championship. "I'm very happy winning five or six out of 18, 20 events every year. That's not a bad percentage.''

It turns out, Woods was right. Victories and low scoring average meant more to his peers than money earned or top-10s.

The gap narrowed in 2003, and Woods was not the dominant No. 1 he has been in years past. That could be viewed as discouraging or encouraging, depending on one's perspective.

Woods might not let it get so close again, an opportunity wasted. Or, maybe this will inspire others to challenge Woods more, something that has often been lacking in the game.

We'll see.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com