NO ONE expected the season-ending Tour Championship to generate much excitement. After all, Vijay Singh had already clinched the FedEx Cup race three weeks before, at the BMW Championship in St. Louis. The only likely drama at Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club would be whether Singh could somehow find a way to mess up a $10 million payday by missing a tee time, getting disqualified, forgetting to show up, hurting himself so he couldn't finish or, I don't know, getting struck by a rogue meteorite. Last Saturday a fan did get clocked in the skull by a rogue tee shot off the club of Anthony Kim, not an entirely dissimilar experience. Though bloodied and stitched, the man lived to tell the tale (although Kim admitted, "I thought I killed him") and had the appropriate souvenirs, including a golf ball on which Kim wrote sorry. There were no meteorites at East Lake, but something unusual did happen. The Tour Championship, all by itself, provided the big, thrilling finish that the FedEx Cup playoffs couldn't deliver. Mix the four most popular and compelling stars in the 30-man field—Kim, Sergio García, Phil Mickelson and Camilo Villegas—with a final round filled with birdies, lead changes, reversals, comebacks, charges and meltdowns, and you had one of the best shows of the year.
Kim and Mickelson missed lengthy, curving birdie putts on the final green and settled for a tie for third. García and Villegas missed lengthy, curving birdie putts on the final green and, having each finished at seven under par, went back to the tee at the par-3 18th for a playoff. García mishit a four-iron shot wide right of the green, then failed to get his flop shot onto the putting surface, allowing Villegas to two-putt for par and the win (BIG PLAY, G20). Three weeks after the first victory of his career, at the BMW, Villegas returned from a brief visit to see friends and family in his home country of Colombia and scored his second. In the posttriumph glow he could have pondered this: Had he merely made the cut at the first playoff event, the Barclays—he failed by a stroke—the FedEx Cup Trophy and the $10 million would have been his.
WHAT THE Tour Championship and its FedEx Cup tie-in lacked in relevance, it made up for with cash. Told that he had a putt on the 72nd green for $4.26 million (the total he would've earned in tournament prize money and FedEx Cup bonus payout if he had finished first), a stunned García asked, "Really?"
Yes, really. "Too bad," he deadpanned, drawing laughter from reporters.
You might as well hand the Tour Championship the trophy for comeback of the year. For a tournament that wasn't supposed to end well, it could hardly have turned out better. Three young guns, the future of the game, versus 38-year-old Mickelson, in a new role as Methuselah. "I am the old guy now, I know," Mickelson said after he came up short. "I noticed it at the Ryder Cup. That was my seventh Ryder Cup. I did feel like the old dude."
Mickelson and the youngsters helped bail out a troubled FedEx Cup season. First, there was Tiger Woods, or the lack thereof. He had knee surgery after he won the U.S. Open and was out for the year, taking just about every ounce of buzz and Nielsen points with him. Then came the Olympics, which overshadowed everything in August. Then came the selection of the Ryder Cup teams, followed two weeks ago by the Cup itself.
In a failed experiment the four FedEx Cup events were broken up on the schedule. The first three were played on consecutive weeks, followed by a week off, then the Ryder Cup and then the Tour Championship. Failed experiment? Yes—most of the players from the winning U.S. side were draggin' their wagons after the matches in Louisville. One of the heroes at Valhalla, Kentucky native Kenny Perry, shot 10 over par in Atlanta, as did Stewart Cink and Steve Stricker.
Perry had gone home to Franklin, Ky., for a day, then got up on Tuesday and drove to East Lake. "That was a depressing drive," Perry said. "This is a great tournament, but it's bad timing. Playing before my home folks last week in the Ryder Cup was the ultimate. It was hard for me to get motivated for this. It's like winning the Super Bowl on Sunday, and then you have to play the Pro Bowl the next day. Coming here ruined the greatest week in my life. I didn't want to be here. I wanted to go home and celebrate." (Perry and Stricker were also less than thrilled to receive pink slips—notices that they were among those selected for random drug testing—at East Lake.)
Most Ryder Cuppers had similar letdowns. Mickelson and Kim shared third place at six under par, but the other eight U.S. players in the field were a combined 45 over.
Stricker, who lives in Madison, Wis., returned home for a quiet two days that he spent fielding e-mail and text messages, including one from Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who invited Stricker to appear on the field at this Saturday night's Ohio State--Wisconsin game at Camp Randall Stadium. Stricker said it will be "pretty cool" if he has something to do with the pregame coin flip.
While some of his teammates sagged, Kim, 23, soared. He opened with a 64 and led by two shots after a one-under 69 in the second round. Off the course he continued to win over fans with his enthusiasm and sense of humor. For example, he said he needed a couple of days to recover from the U.S. team's Sunday-night victory celebration. Why? "I did a lot of reading that night," he said. "My eyes were tired."
Kim was paired with García in the final twosome for last Saturday's round, a rematch of their Ryder Cup singles showdown, handily won by Kim, 5 and 4. The encore saw a reversal. García would've won 4 and 2 if they had been playing a match. Kim could only laugh at how badly his day went. He mistakenly thought his tee time was 11:55 a.m. when it was actually 30 minutes earlier. By the time he realized his mistake (after noticing that the locker room had cleared), Kim had only a half hour to warm up—and he hit the ball terribly on the range. "I don't know anyone who could have fixed that swing," he said.
The low point may have been the par-4 16th, where Kim blocked his tee shot way right, but it caromed back into the right rough. He pulled the next shot way left, drilling a set of luxury suites. This ball caromed back into the left rough, and from there he fluffed a flop shot into a greenside bunker, getting up and down for bogey. He wound up shooting a 72 to García's 67. That set up Sunday's thrill ride. García was in the final pairing with Mickelson, and Kim was next-to-last with Villegas. García had a three-stroke lead over Kim and Mickelson, and a five-shot edge on Villegas.
Villegas made an early move, then hooked a five-iron into the water at the par-3 6th and bogeyed the 7th. "Don't quit on me; you can do it," Villegas's caddie, Gary Mathews, told his man. Villegas birdied five of the next six holes. "It was crazy out there, man," Villegas said.
While García struggled with his swing and his putting, Kim opened a two-shot lead that vanished as quickly as it appeared. Mickelson got a share of the lead with two birdies on the back but bogeyed the 16th after driving into the left trees. A four-man playoff loomed as a possibility before Villegas boldly went for the pin at the 453-yard 17th, where water lurked just a few steps behind the green, and pulled it off, then holed a 12-footer for the birdie 3. "That was the shot of the tournament," Villegas said of his seven-iron approach.
IN THE end, the Tour Championship felt like a changing of the guard. The 2008 season was supposed to fade to irrelevance with Woods on the sideline. Instead, one player after another stepped up in his absence. First it was Padraig Harrington, who parlayed brilliant final nines into British Open and PGA Championship titles. Then it was Singh, who convinced himself he was a good putter and suddenly won three times, including two FedEx Cup events.
At the Ryder Cup, U.S. fans were dazzled by the likes of Kim and Hunter Mahan and Boo Weekley. García played well all year, winning the Players Championship and taking tough losses at the PGA, the Barclays and last week to his friend, the still-improving Villegas, who has established himself as a top 10 talent.
Instead of an uninspired, 30-man outing, the Tour Championship turned into an exciting glimpse of the game's future. The start of the '09 season is three months away, and we probably won't see Tiger play for seven, until the Masters. But we can't wait.
Follow the PGA Tour's Fall Series at GOLF.com.
The Envelopes, Please
With apologies to the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospital for Children Open, the PGA Tour season is now over. Yes, the Fall Series and the Silly Season remain, but no history will be made for the remainder of 2008, so it's time to name the winners of our annual SI GOLF PLUS PGA Tour Awards.
Tournament of the Year U.S. Open
The Ryder Cup certainly was the feel-good event of 2008 (well, maybe not for you, Nick), but Tiger Woods's show at Torrey Pines was a performance for the ages. He won the Open on one leg, an epic effort that invoked memories of Ben Hogan and Ken Venturi and may ultimately define Tiger's incomparable career.
Most Compatabate Dozen U.S. Ryder Cup team
Before the matches at Valhalla, Boo Weekley revealed that if the Americans were to win, they would need to be compatabate—a coinage of the inimitable Boo that meant being more compatible and playing like a team. The Yanks, led by enthusiastic rookies such as Boo, Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan, translated Boo's wish to the letter and won the Cup for the first time in nine years. It was more than a win, it was victorable. Ain't that right, Boo?
Shot of the Year Steve
Stricker Stricker's teammates agree that his clutch putt on the 18th hole to earn a crucial halve in a Saturday four-ball match was the most vital stroke in the U.S.'s 16 1/2--11 1/2 victory.
Dirtbag of the Year Paul Goydos
(left) A Long Beach State alum, the endorsementless Goydos proudly wore a Dirtbags baseball cap throughout the Players Championship, which he lost to Sergio García in a playoff.
Quote of the Year Rory Sabbatini
(right) "Lick the lollipop of mediocrity once and you'll suck forever."
Tiger Woods Award (player of the year) Padraig Harrington
Tiger was headed for another slam-dunk season before knee surgery ended his run. He played in six tournaments and won five, including the dramatic U.S. Open. Harrington, however, gets the nod for winning the British Open and the PGA Championship. Was Tiger's performance more impressive? Yes, but as Tiger says, it's all about the majors, and ask yourself this: Would Tiger trade his major and the four other wins for Paddy's two majors? You bet.
Small Consolation Cup Stewart Cink
At the Zurich Classic, Cink had one foot in a fairway bunker as he hit an approach shot that wound up in a greenside sand trap. As Cink walked to the green, his caddie raked the fairway bunker, an act that, according to the Rules of Golf, violated Rule 13-4a for testing the condition of a hazard. Cink only realized the violation the next day after a casual conversation with pal Zach Johnson. Cink was assessed a two-shot penalty, and therefore had signed for an incorrect score and was disqualified. The USGA changed the arcane rule nine days later.
Forever Young Award Greg Norman
(left) The Great White Shark had a chance to become the oldest winner in the history of the majors when, at 53, he took a two-shot lead into the final round of the British Open, but he shot a 77 to tie for third.
Body Part of the Year Tiger's left knee
We couldn't stop talking about the torn ACL and painful microfractures that caused the world's top-ranked player to quit playing and have reconstructive surgery eight days after winning his 14th major championship.
Show Me the Money Trophy Vijay Singh
The big Fijian clinched the $10 million first prize for the FedEx Cup three weeks before the playoffs ended, and he also swiped the overall money title, which had been Tiger's personal property for seven of the last 10 years. To show his appreciation, Veej says he'll probably play more in Europe next year.
Photograph by Fred Vuich
PAIR OF ACES Villegas (above) and Singh (inset right) each won two of the four playoff events.
Photograph by Fred Vuich
[See caption above]
Photograph by Fred Vuich
POWER FADE Kim, who made 13 birdies in the first two rounds, had only three on the weekend and tied for third.