Lots at stake at season ending events
The World Golf Championships were designed to bring together the greatest players in the world.
This one could go a long way toward identifying the best player of the year.
Tiger Woods, Mike Weir, Davis Love III and Jim Furyk return from long layoffs to compete in the American Express Championship, a $6 million tournament that serves as the starting line for what should be a fascinating finish to the season.
At stake, along with $1.05 million for the winner, is a chance for a half-dozen players to state their cases as PGA Tour player of the year.
"This week and the Tour Championship will probably determine a lot of different things -- the money title, player of the year, Vardon Trophy," Woods said. "A lot of things are up for grabs. It's pretty important to play well in those events."
Until this year, about all that mattered at the American Express Championship was the prestige of the trophy and the size of the check. Woods already had wrapped up the big awards, sometimes as early as July.
Now he is only one of the contenders.
Weir has won three times, including the Masters, and is fifth on the money list, still in range with two $6 million events on the schedule. Furyk won the U.S. Open, another PGA Tour event and is rarely out of the top 10.
The last time someone was voted PGA Tour player of the year without winning a major was Greg Norman in 1995, a trend that bodes well for Weir and Furyk.
"I've heard guys talk that they put more emphasis on money," Weir said. "Other guys say major championships is important, and how you've been in contention maybe a little bit more. So, it's pretty subjective."
Vijay Singh has three victories and leads the money list with $5.7 million, although Davis Love III was quick to point out Wednesday that Singh has played five more tournaments and leads him by just under $200,000.
"I just have to play better than him and Tiger and the rest of them the rest of the way," Love said.
Love and Woods both have four victories, including a couple of top-tier tournaments -- Love won The Players Championship by closing with a 64 in tough conditions, Woods the Match Play Championship in which he was taken the distance only once in six matches.
Woods has won PGA Tour player of the year, the money title and Vardon Trophy the last four years. No one has won five straight money titles.
And the Jack Nicklaus Award for player of the year hasn't even left his neighborhood since Woods' first full season as a pro. Woods won in 1997, and the award in 1998 went to Mark O'Meara, who lives four houses away.
The race is so close that none of the six top contenders -- Kenny Perry (three wins) has an outside chance -- can be called a clear-cut favorite.
"That's what the World Golf Championships and the Tour Championship were meant to do -- decide money titles and player of the year, things like that," Love said. "It sure makes the end of the season a lot more exciting."
It all starts Thursday at the Capital City Club north of Atlanta, a relatively new golf course that some players say could be one of the tougher tests of the year.
The course is 7,189 yards and plays as a par 70. Length isn't nearly as big a factor as the speed of the greens, which Ernie Els described as the fastest he's seen.
Fastest in Georgia?
"Absolutely. Even faster than you-know-where," Els said, aware that Augusta National is only about two hours away.
Woods played one practice round and figured it would be tough to get the ball anywhere near the hole except by accident. Weir spent a lot of time on his lag putting, even from short distances.
The tournament is for the top 50 in the world ranking, along with leading money-winners from the six tours around the world.
Darren Clarke won the NEC Invitational last month, and a victory at the American Express would let him join Woods as the only players to have won all three World Golf Championships.
Woods, No. 1 in the world, has been tops against the world.
He already has won six of the 12 WGC events he has played for official money, and the only time he has finished out of the top five was a first-round loss last year at the Match Play Championship.
Woods has not played since the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston on Labor Day, and brings his third driver of the year -- a Nike Ignite prototype -- to the Crabapple course at Capital City.
A victory might make him the front-runner for player of the year, and would restore his position atop the money list. Otherwise, the season-ending awards could be a hot topic over the final five weeks of the season.
"I just have to play hard," Weir said. "That's what I'm planning on doing in the last three tournaments, playing hard and see what happens. Obviously, there's a few guys who have a great chance. If you can sneak a win here, they'll probably get the upper hand."
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