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Golf's lingering suspense: who's to be Player of the Year?

By this time of year, golf's major awards usually have been decided, with the only lingering doubt being whether Tom Watson will be able to arrange his schedule so he can attend all the gala luncheons and dinners where they are presented.

Watson has been the PGA Player of the Year for the past four seasons, has won the last four tour money championships, and has taken the Vardon Trophy for low stroke average in three of those years.

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This year is dramatically different.

With the schedule winding down, Raymond Floyd is tied with Watson in the points race for the PGA's Player of the Year honor, with Bill Rogers in close pursuit.

The PGA, which revamped its criteria this year, gives points in several categories. Winning one of the four major championships is worth 30 points. Winning the Tournament Players Championship or the World Series of Gold counts 20, while any other tour event brings in 10.

Finishing high on the money and stroke average lists in rewarded with 20 points for first place, 18 for second, 16 for third, and so on throuhg 10th place.

As they stand today, Watson and Floyd have 74 points apiece, Rogers 70.

Tom Kite leads the money standing with $356,000 -- but just behind are Floyd ($348,000), Watson ($346,000), and Lietzke ($335,000).

Kite, who has finished in the top eight in 14 of his last 15 tournaments, carries the lowest stroke average for the year: 69.93. Lietzke, at 70.10 per round, and Floyd, at 70.24, are in contention still.

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Four tournaments remain. This week it's the Hall of Fame tournament in Pinehurst, N.C., followed by the Texas Open, Southern Open, and Pensacola Open.

The stars often skip such lesser events late in the season, preferring to relax, watch football, or travel to overseas events that pay them hefty guarantees. However, some of them are reconsidering their plans in view of the tight competition for annual awards.

Floyd is playing at Pinehurst, but most of the other top contenders are skipping this tournament after playing for the Ryder Cup in England last weekend.

Watson, who had thought he wouldn't play in the United States again until 1982, says he may enter at Pensacola -- the final tournament -- if the money race stays hot.

Kite and Rogers probably will play the Texas Open, being native Texans. Kite's wife is expecting a baby about that time, though, so he might drop out at the last minute.

Those two are running away with the race for Golf Digest's most-improved award. The hard-working Kite, who has made steady progress in his 10 years on the circuit, has won only one tournament this year, the Inverrary early on, but has been the tour's most consistent practitioner. His performance average, the best measure of week-to-week effectiveness, is a runaway best of .809. (Lietzke is next at .720.)

Kite was second at Memphis, the World Series, and the B.C. Open. Rogers won the Heritage, the British Open, and the World Series, and was runner-up in the US Open. His money total of $270,000 includes the record $100,000 first price from the World Series but not the $50,000 he earned at the British Open, which is considered apart from the American tour.

The slender 30-year-old University of Houston product with the quick smile has been a straight-hitting contender since 1978, but was known mainly for collecting second-place paychecks until this summer.

"I didn't let a reputation for being a runner-up finisher affect me," he says. "I knew there was pressure on me to win, but I reasoned that the more times I could get close to the top, the better I'd be able to handle it. I was patient enough to wait for my turn to come, and maybe it's here now."

Rogers leads the tour in aliases -- he is called both Buck and Panther. Lietzke gave him the latter nickname when they were college teammates because Rogers is restless by nature. Lietzke used to dare him to try to sit still for five minutes -- and usually Rogers couldn't do it!

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