Tiger was a no-show, but the first FedEx Cup playoff event provided a stirring and popular comeback story
THE FIRST of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoff events featured a nice field on a nice course and a perfectly acceptable winner in Steve Stricker (67-67-65-69-268). What a surprise. The Barclays, contested at Westchester Country Club in Harrison, N.Y., was not the complete disaster that many hyperbolic newspaper columnists had forecast, nor did it triumphantly ring in a new era in golf, to borrow the grandiose Tour slogan that has been drilled into the head of every fan thanks to a seasonlong ad campaign that cost in the neighborhood of $45 million. What the Barclays felt like was just another good tournament—no more, no less.
The cheery news is that this week Tiger Woods makes his, ahem, playoff debut at the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston. Woods's last-minute decision to blow off the Barclays because, as he said, "my body is spent, and I need a break," was a public-relations disaster for the Tour but helpful from a competitive standpoint. Had Woods won at Westchester, he would have eliminated all but a handful of the other players in the four-week points race and rendered the remaining events more or less ceremonial. Now he comes to Boston fourth on the points list and—given his rabbit ears—surely smarting from the snarky reaction to having granted himself a first-round bye. Woods's sudden case of fatigue set eyes rolling because had he played at Westchester, he would have come in off a nine-day layoff following the whopping two consecutive tournaments that so wore him down. "I mean, you play two weeks, you fly in on your G2, you fly home on your G2, I don't know how tired you can really be," said Steve Flesch, the 165-pound pro who played 10 consecutive weeks this year. "I'm not in the shape all those top guys are, but two weeks, being exhausted. I don't know."
Even with Woods's absence the Barclays enjoyed some star power. Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els earned top 10s, and in all, 18 of the top 20 in the World Ranking were in the field. Sunday was a tense back-and-forth among a number of accomplished players, including Stricker, 40, who blew everyone away with four birdies on the final five holes. Surely Stricker is not the household name the Tour brass were hoping for, but he makes for a nice story.
In 1996 Stricker seemed set to become one of the brightest stars in golf as he won twice and finished fourth on the money list. But he was unable to build on that breakthrough. In '98 Stricker's careerlong caddie, wife Nicki, gave up the bag to give birth to a baby girl, Bobbi. Stricker is a soft-hearted guy, and he admits that he found it lonely to travel the Tour without his wife and child. His play slipped steadily after '98, and from 2003 to '05 Stricker never finished higher than 151st on the money list.
Having lost his Tour card, he spent the winter following the '05 season at home in Madison, Wis., searching for answers in a three-sided hitting bay that was heated but open to the elements. Many days Stricker pounded balls in temperatures below zero. These icy practice sessions rekindled something within him and also made his swing more compact and reliable. Last year he finished 34th on the money list and was named comeback player of the year. (He also welcomed a second daughter, Isabella.) This season, before the Barclays, Stricker had a handful of chances to win but never could cash in, leading more than a few wags to conclude that he was simply too nice a guy to close out a tournament.
On Sunday, Stricker played with more cutthroat intensity, notably on 17, where he stuck a fearless approach to three feet to take a one-stroke lead over playing partner K.J. Choi. Stricker's fellow Wisconsinite, Tour veteran Jerry Kelly, stood behind the 18th green to watch his buddy come in. Kelly was so nervous he nibbled on his thumbnail and took the kind of deep breaths usually reserved for Lamaze class. "I've got chills, man," Kelly said. "Nobody deserves it more. All he's been through...."
Stricker capped the two-stroke win with a deft up and down from the fairway for one last birdie. He, too, was emotional afterward, and not because he's now first in FedEx Cup points. "Obviously winning the tournament is foremost," Stricker said. "Everything that comes after that is icing on the cake. I wasn't thinking about FedEx Cup points out there."
Easy for him to say. While Stricker was playing for glory, a concurrent drama was taking place further down the points list, as a motley band of journeymen were playing for their survival. The Tour calls the FedEx Cup a playoff because the field is reduced each week. In all 144 players qualified for the Barclays, and after the full complement of 50,000 points (and $7 million) was distributed to those who made the cut, the top 120 in cumulative points moved on to this week's event.
The saddest of those who didn't advance might have been Jason Dufner, who has bounced between the Nationwide and PGA tours since 2000. He came into the Barclays 128th in points. After birdieing the 17th hole on Sunday, he had played himself to the precipice of the top 120, and CBS cut to him as he played the 18th hole, projecting that a birdie would assure him a spot in the Deutsche Bank. In the end, Dufner's fate came down to a four-foot birdie putt. He yipped it, and that was that.
While the FedEx Cup moves on to Boston in search of more traction, Dufner was left to slink home to Alabama. "It's not the first time I've left a tournament feeling disappointed," he said after his closing 69, but his final thought, one week into the FedEx Cup, said so much more. "I wanted to be a part of it," Dufner said, "even if I'm still not sure I understand what it all means."
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The Pepper Mill by Dottie Pepper
Having covered the U.S. Women's Amateur and the men's Amateur over the last three weeks, I've had a front-row seat to all that's right about golf: playing hard for nothing more than an invitation to the Masters (men) or the Kraft Nabisco (women), and a free pass to your respective U.S. Open. Instead of gallery ropes there are local caddies (or you can carry your own bag) and quirky matchups. This year Cheng Tsung Pan, a 15-year-old from Taiwan who made it to the quarterfinals, could've faced George Zahringer, a man in his mid-50s, or college stud Colt Knost (above), who went on to beat Alabama's Michael Thompson 2 and 1 in the final. On the women's side, UCLA freshman Maria Uribe, a world-class salsa dancer from Colombia, boogied past Duke's two-time college player of the year Amanda Blumenherst 1 up in the final. You can't invent stories like this in the marketing department.
FRED VUICH (STRICKER)
LEADING MAN With his first win since 2001, Stricker sits atop the playoff standings
ERIC RISBERG/AP (KNOST)
MISSING PERSON Woods's pullout was a p.r. disaster but a competitive plus.