There's just one tournament left in the 2011 Bassmaster Elite Series season, and like each of its predecessors in turn, this is the biggest so far.
If you've been residing under a rock for the past four months, you may be surprised to hear that Kevin VanDam is in the hunt for his seventh Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title and fourth in a row. The former has been done (Roland Martin won nine), but the latter would be unprecedented.
Until KVD's recent heroics, the most impressive string of AOY finishes belonged to Roland Martin in the six-year stretch between 1970 and 1975. VanDam can eclipse Martin with a win this year. Here are the numbers:
Roland Martin Kevin VanDam
1970 — 2 2006 — 3
1971 — 1 2007 — 2
1972 — 1 2008 — 1
1973 — 1 2009 — 1
1974 — 4 2010 — 1
1975 — 1 2011 — ?
KVD currently enjoys a 55-point lead over his closer competitor, Oklahoma's Edwin Evers, an angler renowned for his versatility and ability to catch bass under any conditions nature might throw at a man.
Evers is no surprise entry in this race. He was AOY runner-up last year and has finished in the top 10 three times in his career. He's one of the very best in the business, and most judges of professional angling talent consider him a good bet to win AOY or a Bassmaster Classic one of these years.
The problem, of course, is VanDam. It's tough to stake your claim to bass fishing history when KVD is selfishly grabbing it all for himself.
There are two big titles in the world of professional bass fishing — the Bassmaster Classic and the Angler of the Year award — and KVD has won both of them every year since the 2009 AOY. That's three straight AOYs and back-to-back Classics, a run that no one else can match.
Of course, the 2011 season isn't over, and Evers still has a chance at his first major title, but he's fighting an uphill battle and the foe on top of that hill is considerable.
The AOY title is not "anyone's" to win; it's VanDam's to lose, and losing is not something he does very often. With the notable exception of the 2007 Classic, which he led going into the final round (finishing fourth), KVD is the sport's best closer.
His combination of superior fishing skills and timely mind games has kept the competition at bay. When he's ahead, he runs away from the crowd; when he's behind, his footsteps strike feat in their hearts. No tournament is over until VanDam weighs in.
Maybe Edwin Evers will be different, though. Maybe he'll find a way to break through and end VanDam's amazing dominance in the sport.
If Evers is looking for bright spots or chinks in the armor, he'll want to know this: The biggest lead any angler has ever held in the AOY race at this stage (after seven events) is 62 points. That angler was Kevin VanDam in 2007, and his fairly sizable lead was over Skeet Reese.
In the eighth tournament, though, the tables turned. Reese grabbed the lead by 12 and went on to claim the AOY title.
But that was 2007, and that was before VanDam became the irresistible force that he is today.
His 55-point lead puts him in control of his own fate. If he can finish in the top eight (he was second on Wheeler the last time the Elites were there in the summer; Evers was 13th), there's no way Evers can catch him, even if he wins the tournament and goes wire-to-wire doing it. And if VanDam finishes 51st, missing the first cut (something he's never done at Wheeler), Evers will have to finish 23rd or better to claim AOY.
The one thing we know at this point is that VanDam will fish smart. He'll bring in a limit on the first day, take stock of his position relative to Evers, and adjust his strategy accordingly.
If Evers is to win the title, he'll definitely earn it.