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Warren Bennett

Low key end to PGA Tour season

The final tournament of the year, played on a course that has hosted a U.S. Open and a Ryder Cup. The top 30 players on the PGA Tour money list. A $5 million purse, one of the richest in golf, with $900,000 going to the winner.

Now all the Tour Championship needs is some significance.

Fat chance.

Blame it on Tiger Woods, who again has turned the Tour Championship into an epilogue instead of the dramatic climax it was intended to be.

He already has won the money title with more than $5.5 million. His closest pursuer, Phil Mickelson, is $1.1 million behind and changing diapers this week on his 5-day-old daughter.

Woods is a lock to win another Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average, and barring some hanging chads on the ballots, should win player of the year.

So, what would it mean for him to win?

``It would mean six victories on our tour,'' Woods said Tuesday on the practice range at Champions Golf Club.

And what would that mean?

``A lot.''

Like what?

``A lot.''

Oh.

The last time anything was at stake in the Tour Championship was three years ago at East Lake, when David Duval needed to finish four strokes higher than Woods to claim the Vardon Trophy. He wound up eight strokes ahead of Woods.

Gone are the times when a player could win the Tour Championship and claim the money title. That's what Tom Lehman did at Southern Hills in 1996, surpassing four-time winner Mickelson, and it was enough for him to get voted player of the year.

To find something meaningful about this year's edition requires a little imagination.

It starts with Woods, who was correct when he said six PGA Tour victories would mean a lot. For one thing, it would make him the first player since Ben Hogan in 1946-48 to win at least six times in three consecutive seasons.

Plus, it would help change the public perception on his season. Rarely a week went by without someone comparing Woods' play to last year, when he won nine times -- including three straight majors -- and didn't have a single round over par after the first week in May.

The Miami Dolphins went undefeated in 1972. They were only 12-2 a year later, but still won the Super Bowl.

``Take out what I did last year, and this is a better year than I had in 1999,'' Woods said. ``I won bigger tournaments. I won Firestone both years, won a major. But I won The Players Championship, which I didn't do in '99.''

David Toms has something at stake.

The Tour Championship would be his fourth victory of the year, which might merit fleeting consideration for player of the year. But only fleeting.

If anything, it would demonstrate how Woods has changed the curve on tour.

Four victories used to be considered a blockbuster season. If Toms were to win, it likely would be the fourth straight year -- and five of the last six -- that a player has won four times and failed to get player of the year.

Duval won four times in 1998 and was beaten out by Mark O'Meara's two majors. Duval won four times in 1999, all of them before the clocks changed to Daylight Saving Time. Mickelson won four times last year, but that was five fewer -- including three majors -- than Woods.

Ernie Els probably has more riding on this week than anyone.

As the Big Easy left the parking lot in St. Louis when the American Express Championship was canceled by the terrorist attacks, he said he wasn't coming back to America until the Buick Challenge.

The Buick Challenge?

``Hey, man, I've got to get back to Kapalua,'' he said, referring to the winners-only field at the Mercedes Championships.

More than a trip to Maui, Els is trying to protect the longest active streak on the PGA Tour -- he has won at least once every year since 1994.

He missed the cut at Callaway Gardens. Should he not get it done this week, the longest active streak belongs to -- who else? -- Woods, at six years.

Then again, no one wants to end the year without a victory.

Eight players in the field are winless in 2001, and the list starts with Vijay Singh. The former Masters and PGA champion is in line to set a record as the first $3 million man in golf to have everything but a trophy.

For everyone else, the Tour Championship is one of the great perks on the PGA Tour, an occasion for the rich to get richer. Duval once referred to the Tour Championship as an end-of-the-year party.

What it would mean for him to win?

Duval thought about that for a few seconds, shrugged and smiled.

``It would be nice.''

And that's about all it would mean.


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