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Phil Mickelson & Tiger Woods battle for FedExCup

It started in Hawaii with too much hype and an equal dose of skepticism.

Eight months later, the FedEx Cup ends at East Lake with no need for promotion and no big surprises.

Tiger Woods arrived at the Tour Championship on Wednesday with the best chance to capture the inaugural FedEx Cup and a $10 million deposit into a retirement fund, and he simply nodded his head when asked if $10 million still meant something to a guy who brings in close to $100 million a year.

Phil Mickelson is No. 3 in the standings after skipping last week. He will have to win the Tour Championship for any chance of capturing the cup, although he beat the world's No. 1 player the last time they got together outside Boston.

In the middle is Cinderella, also known as Steve Stricker.

One of only two players who have finished in the top 10 all three weeks in the PGA Tour Playoffs, he is the feel-good story of this FedEx Cup, having lost his card two years ago and coming into this season with just over $10 million in career earnings.

"Let's face it, the FedEx Cup has been pretty blessed," NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said Wednesday. "This didn't need to go down the way it did. It's really between three players, and it could have been between three players no one is interested in."

It all starts to unfold Thursday when the top 30 players tee off at East Lake, where trophies will be awarded for the winner of the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup, and the biggest suspense is whether they will go to the same player.

Rory Sabbatini (No. 4) and K.J. Choi (No. 5) have a mathematical chance of winning the FedEx Cup, although their odds are long.

The only damper on this parade is East Lake.

The course no longer is bursting with autumn colors because the Tour Championship has been moved from the last week of October to the third week in September. And the hot weather has severely damaged the greens, although not nearly to the extent that PGA Tour officials warned players last week.

"They're closer to good than bad, so I'll give them a 6," said Mark Calcavecchia, asked to grade the greens on a scale of 1 to 10. "I was expecting about a 2, to tell you the truth. And I kind of think that's what they wanted everyone to think so when we got here, we wouldn't be shocked. I think everyone is going to be slightly shocked that they're as decent as they are."

They still have grass. Players have said they still roll smoothly. But because the greens nearly died and the root structure is weak, tour officials have said they would run at about 9 1/2 on the Stimpmeter, compared to a typical speed of 11 1/2 .

Woods had not yet played a practice round on the 15 holes available -- players were kept off three of the greens until Thursday -- but said slow greens would favor the poor putters.

"Think about it," he said. "How many bad putters have you seen over the years win Augusta, the fastest, most sloping greens? It takes creativity, it takes touch, it takes feel, and you have to start the ball on line with the correct speed. When you get bumpy greens, that's kind of out of he door. You can make a mistake on a putt ... and it can go in."

The focus on Woods lately has been his swing.

Several players have noticed that Woods looks more upright with his stance, and it's impossible to ignore the results. Despite taking 32 putts in the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, Woods still only finished two shots behind. Last week at the BMW Championship, he only missed two fairways on the weekend and broke the tournament scoring record by five shots at 22-under 262.

"I wouldn't say more upright. I'm standing a little bit closer to it, so I think that gives the appearance of it," Woods said.

The change came after the British Open, where he tied for 12th, and noticed he was putting too much weight on his heels while trying to hit a low shot into the wind. He fixed his posture when he got home, and has been close to unbeatable ever since.

He was the only player under par at Firestone, then won his 13th career major at the PGA Championship a week later. Then came the playoffs, where Woods tied for second and picked up his 60th career victory.

Adding to the intrigue of East Lake, however, was that one runner-up finish to Mickelson.

Lefty is starting to play his best golf of the year at a good time, and he won at East Lake in 2000 by two shots over Woods. That was one of only three times in his career that Woods has failed to win with at least a share of the 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour.

"The fun thing about playing golf is trying to win tournaments," Mickelson said, hopeful of winning two trophies this week.

Mickelson played with Woods three out of four rounds in Boston, and to come out with a victory was huge for his psyche.

Stricker went head-to-head with Woods the first two rounds at Cog Hill last week, and was amazed by some of the birdies Woods was able to produce. They will be paired in the final group of the first round at East Lake based on their playoff standings.

It has been an amazing ride for Stricker, and he is piling up plenty of support.

"I'm the underdog in this whole deal, and that's kind of what this format has brought about -- the ability for someone to come from nowhere to win this thing," Stricker said. "I think that's what leads to excitement. And I'm proud to be a part of it."


September 13, 2007

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