THE INAUGURALFedEx Cup ended last week, but you have to go back another 52 weeks tounderstand how much the Cup has changed the landscape of the PGA Tour. Thistime last year the Tour was slogging through something called the 84 LumberClassic, in the wilds of western Pennsylvania, with a $4.6 million purse and afield that had no Tiger or Phil (or for that matter, no Padraig, no Ernie, noSergio, no Furyk). Two more forgettable months would pass until the TourChampionship, the ostensible season-ender that turned out to be such a noneventthat both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson blew it off, which for Mickelson wasthe second consecutive season he couldn't be bothered to show.
To add sizzle, thenew format was born, accompanied by an endless barrage of ads, relentlesssecond-guessing and a mounting number of points and pouts from the players.Now, the FedEx Cup is finally in the books. The verdict? It delivered.
On Sundayafternoon at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Woods won the Tour Championshipwith another classic performance, blowing away the field by eight strokes.Along the way he clinched the top spot in the four-week playoff and thus tookhome the Cup. In the run-up to the playoffs it was hard to gauge Woods'senthusiasm, but the bottom line is that he brought his A-plus game to thetournaments at which he appeared. After granting himself a bye for the first ofthe four events, the Barclays, he roared back with two dominating wins and asecond place that was just as memorable, as he lost a riveting final-roundshootout to Mickelson at the second playoff tournament, the Deutsche Bank.Thanks to the Tiger and Phil Show—and the feel-good reemergence of the nicestguy in golf, Steve Stricker, victor at the Barclays—this first Cup will beremembered not for its clunky points system or the low roar of complaints fromspoiled players but for star power and birdie binges.
"I think,overall, the FedEx was a success," said Woods, whose four-round total of257 (23 under par) at East Lake was the third-lowest in Tour history and atournament record by six strokes. "I think there needs to be some tweaks,but overall it provided a lot of drama toward the end of the season, especiallypost-PGA when most of the guys [used to] shut it down."
Woods's 61stcareer victory moved him within one of Arnold Palmer on the alltime list.(Palmer was 44 and had played upward of 450 tournaments when he won number 62;Woods is 31 and has played 216 events.) His $11.26 million payday—$1.26 millionfrom the Tour Championship purse, $10 million in FedEx Cup bonus moneydeposited tax-free into his retirement account—nudged him that much closer tobecoming the first billionaire athlete in any sport. More important, the TourChampionship put an exclamation point on one of the most breathtaking stretchesof Woods's incomparable career, a period in which he has won four of fivestarts while going a total of 75 under par.
The run began lastmonth with an eight-stroke victory at the Bridgestone Invitational, which wasfollowed by a win at the PGA Championship, during which he shot a 63 to tie thelowest score in major-championship history. Two weeks ago Woods dropped another63 to blow the doors off the competition during the final round of the BMWChampionship, the third of the playoff events. With that victory he surged tothe top of the point standings, at 112,733. Stricker was second, with 109,600points, while Mickelson was one notch back at 108,613. With 50,000 points upfor grabs at the 30-man Tour Championship, including 10,300 to the winner, itwas essentially a three-horse race for the overall prize. (Rory Sabbatini andK.J. Choi were mathematically alive but only if Woods finished worse than 13thor, in Choi's case, 21st. Even they knew they had no shot.)
If the TourChampionship was being likened to the Super Bowl by hyperbolic PGA Tourofficials, the playing conditions were equivalent to a sandlot. Record heat inthe Atlanta area had all but killed off East Lake's bentgrass greens, andpanicked tournament brass canceled the pro-am and restricted practice-roundplay in an effort to nurse the greens back to health. By game time the bumpyputting surfaces were actually perfect for the pros: O.K. enough to make puttson, but suspect enough that any miss could be blamed on a spike mark, whetherit existed or not. The real problems with East Lake's greens were theirsoftness—even four-iron shots were -plugging—and that the frayed edges forcedthe holes to be cut in the unprotected center of most surfaces. Woods calledthe setup of the 7,154-yard par-70 the easiest he's played in his pro career,and he wasted little time sinking his claws into East Lake, birdieing his firstthree holes en route to an opening 64, which left him two back of Tim Clark,whose 62 was a new course record that would last all of two days, until ZachJohnson hung up a 60. The tournament—and the FedEx Cup—was more or less decidedduring the front nine of Woods's second round, when he followed fiveconsecutive birdies with a 70-foot putt for eagle on the 9th hole to shoot a28, the lowest nine-hole score of his Tour career. Afterward his playingpartner, Stricker, sounded as if he were suffering from posttraumatic stresssyndrome.
"I mean, whatcan you do?" Stricker mumbled. "I have it inside of him a couple times,and I walk off with par and he makes a birdie.... It was unbelievable after awhile, what he was doing. On number 5"—where Woods hit his worst shot ofthe day only to follow it with a yo-mama slam dunk of a sand shot—"itactually looks as if he's going to make a bogey. I've got 15 feet for birdie,and now all of a sudden he makes birdie and I make par. You sit back and thinkto yourself, How does that happen? It gets to you after a while."
Woods's 63propelled him into the lead by three strokes over Woody Austin, and Tiger wasunrelenting on the weekend while his would-be competitors fell away. OnSaturday, Woods's 64 kept him three up on the field and 13 strokes ahead ofMickelson and 16 up on Stricker. The chase for the Cup was all but over, and itcame and went without a defining moment or singularly memorable shot. "Iwish I had made it a little more exciting," was all Mickelson couldsay.
Was it a letdownfor Woods to have so easily taken the ballyhooed FedEx Cup title? "I'm sureTiger doesn't feel that way," Mickelson said.
Woods tidiedthings up on Sunday with a monotonous 66. By then, most of the other playerswere already looking ahead to next year. Stricker was hoping Woods wouldcontinue his benevolent absenteeism. "Tiger taking the [first] week offallowed me to get up in there," said Stricker, who earned a $3 millionbonus for finishing second in the playoffs. "Too bad he didn't take asecond one off, really."
That couldconceivably come to pass in 2008, when the Ryder Cup begins five days after theFedEx Cup concludes. Woods and Mickelson took some heat for each skipping atournament (Lefty passed up the BMW), but these unscheduled weeks off aredestined to become part of the fabric of the Cup. If any mere mortal wants tokeep up with Woods, he'll probably have to power through all four events,regardless of the accumulating mental strain. "I was getting to the end ofmy rope," Stricker said on Sunday. But shouldn't a series of tournamentsdesigned to identify the best player push all of them to the limit, or close toit?
These guys arecertainly being compensated well enough. Over four weeks a jaw-dropping $63million was up for grabs, more than the entire purse of the 1995 season. TheTour earmarked $35 million of the pot for deferred retirement accounts. Thissaved the players a bundle on taxes but denied them the instant gratificationthey are so accustomed to. Woods, one of the less shrill voices, noted that hemight be dead by the time the money becomes available. Given the players'grumbling, it's a near certainty that next year less of the money will gotoward the retirement plan.
More importantchanges should be made to improve the competition. It would be helpful if thepoints distribution is tweaked to allow for more volatile movement up and downthe standings during the playoffs. This would add more drama to each of thefour tournaments, especially the Tour Championship, where last week the vastmajority of the 30 players were simply taking up space. And while they're atit, the Tour's nomenclature could also use some editing. Playoffs imbues theevents with a win-or-go-home urgency that is mostly lacking. Payoffs is morelike it.
These quibblesaside, the FedEx Cup already seems on firm footing, especially with the wayWoods's dominance instantly stamped it with his imprimatur. In fact, the onlytime he seemed the least bit flummoxed last week was during the trophyceremony, at which he received a crystal concoction for winning the TourChampionship and an oversized silver thingy for the FedEx victory. As Woodsposed with various dignitaries, a harried, white-gloved official kept switchingout the trophies. "I'm having trouble keeping track of which is which,"Woods said at one point, but he didn't seem to mind the confusion too much.It's not often you get two trophies for the price of one.
Shouldn't a series of tournaments designed to identifythe best player PUSH ALL OF THEM to the limit, or close to it?
Making a List
Who's on a roll? Who's had better weeks? SI's AlanShipnuck makes the call.
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Photograph by Fred Vuich
HEAD TURNER Woods pleased the East Lake crowd with four rounds in the 60s and the third-lowest total in Tour history.
WALKOVER Mickelson won a showdown with Woods in Boston but skipped the Chicago stop and lost his momentum.