Buckle up, kids. September is here, and Tiger Woods and the boys are still playing tournament golf for cash and valuable prizes. A good guess is that Tiger—the new, unpredictable Tiger—will play all four PGA Tour playoff events. And so will Padraig Harrington and Vijay Singh and Ernie Els and Heath Slocum, who won the first of the four, the Barclays, on Sunday, on a pink night in Jersey City, hard by New Jersey Turnpike exit 14B and the Statue of Liberty, 20 minutes by ferry from lower Manhattan, longer if you take the Holland Tunnel.
Slocum won on a new course called Liberty National—built on 140 reclaimed acres of Industrial Age detritus—which has narrow, silky ribbons for fairways; wet, pungent rough; and greens that make you wish you had Dramamine. But on one of those swooping greens, the 18th, the Tour hobgoblins that work by floodlight in the predawn chill did a shrewd thing. They cut the hole in a little oasis of relative flatness covered with perfect grass. You know what that means for Tour players? Party time.
Steve Williams knew what was next, his caddie bib already off for the triumphant photo ops. So did Zach Johnson, sitting on his golf bag beside the 18th green. They knew what Woods would do with the red light on and the tournament up for grabs and his We Are the World gallery jostling for position. Woods was going to hole a seven-footer for birdie, post nine under for four rounds and win from the clubhouse while the remaining six gents on the course assumed their time-honored also-ran roles.
Just one problem. The rules of engagement have changed. Every golfhead knows what Y.E. Yang of South Korea did to the old order last month at the PGA Championship. Yang, the One Who Wears All White, was paired with Tiger in the final group at Hazeltine. Woods, leader by two through 54 holes, shot a bland Sunday 75. Yang, courtesy of his rock-solid 70, won by three. They gave the man a 27-pound trophy.
That was two Sundays ago, and this was now: Tiger missed. On Sunday night in Jersey City, the new, unpredictable Tiger Woods failed to sink a seven-footer over perfect grass with Part I of the FedEx Cup playoffs on the line. About 15 minutes later, Slocum, of Milton, Fla., the 124th player in the 125-player field, made a gutty 20-footer for par on that very green to preserve his score of nine under. Nobody shot lower. Slocum's psychologist had told him something brilliant: Nobody can control what you do on the course but you. Not even Tiger.
"I was pretty darn sure that [Woods's] putt was going in," Johnson said later from the comfort of the chic Liberty National clubhouse. "Tiger always makes those putts." That, however, was before Mr. Yang broke the spell. "Evidently," Johnson said, "Tiger's human." Remember the guy who won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble by more than two touchdowns? That guy was not human.
Next stop, Boston (100 players in the field). Then Chicago (70 players, no cut). And then the grand finale in Atlanta (30 players). New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta. Tiger and Paddy and Heath and Y.E. playing every week. Sure, this whole playoff is a cash grab, but it's also professional golf's most intense month.
In its third year, and in its third incarnation, the playoff points system that determines who advances, and who ultimately wins, is still way too complicated. (A short list of players who don't fully understand it: Woods, Phil Mickelson, Harrington, Slocum.) The playoff events don't feel like traditional PGA Tour golf, but they do feel new, and right now that's welcome.
Boston will be another story and Chicago another one and Atlanta yet another. Give it up for commissioner Tim Finchem. Tiger, with wife Elin scheduling playdates for Sam and Charlie at home in Florida, really doesn't want to play four straight events between the end of his real season, when the last major is played in August, and the start of his obligatory presence at the Presidents Cup, which will be played in San Francisco in mid-October. And yet Woods is doing exactly that. The man—that is to say Finchem—has game.
He was helped in an unlikely way, by Woods's 0-fer in the majors this year. Suddenly, despite his five Tour wins on the season, this whole FedEx Cup thing means more to Woods than it has before.
Slocum learned about Woods's miss on 18 through crowd groans. He was nine under by then. "I expected that to go in, I really did," Slocum said. It was simply another short birdie putt on 18 with a tournament on the line. "Ho-hum for him," the winner said.
Actually, not. As Slocum knows—he's won three times on Tour—winning never gets old. Woods said, "If I would have hit a poor putt, I would have been pissed, but I didn't. That's no big deal. If you misread a putt, that happens."
You know better. He came off the green and slipped under the stands and into the privacy of a tunnel. Through clenched teeth, he squeezed off a "Ge-od!"
So it's on to TPC Boston. We don't even know how it will end. Sounds like an honest-to-Ge-od playoff.
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Photograph by MIKE EHRMANN
Early leader Steve Marino (left) flipped out after an errant putt, while Slocum(right) came up big in the clutch.
MEL EVANS/AP (SLOCUM)
[See caption above]
THIN MAN Steve Stricker's mishit at 18 left him a shot back with Els, Harrington and Woods.