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FedEx Cup finally delivers exciting finale

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem camped out behind the first tee as the final round of the Tour Championship got under way at East Lake. From any direction, he couldn’t complain about the view.

In front of him was a procession of the game’s top players—Ernie Els, Steve Stricker, Padraig Harrington, Phil Mickelson, followed by Tiger Woods in the final pairing with Kenny Perry. Looking down the first fairway, both sides were lined with spectators.

“Record crowd for us here,” Finchem said, referring to an estimated crowd of 24,000. It was the most ever for a Sunday ticket at East Lake, and even more impressive considering the Atlanta Falcons game at New England was on TV.

And the day only got better.

When it was over, Finchem was flanked by golf’s two biggest stars— Mickelson, who closed with a bogey-free 65 to win the Tour Championship; and Woods, who captured the FedEx Cup and eliminated any discussion about the $10 million bonus going to the right guy.

PGA Tour officials will huddle over the next month for a post-mortem on the FedEx Cup, although these meetings should be short. The postseason boondoggle delivered everything they could have wanted:

Four tournaments in five weeks featuring a world-class collection of players; some of the strongest leaderboards of the year.

After a year in which the four major champions were ranked outside the top 30, the final three playoff events were won by players who are Nos. 1-2-3 in the world—Woods, Mickelson and Stricker.

Not everyone understood the points system, although it wasn’t hard to figure out who was doing well.

Woods didn’t realize until The Barclays that he could have won the first three playoff events and still lost the FedEx Cup. Nor did he realize until the Tour Championship that he could have stayed home and showed up at East Lake as the No. 3 seed.

And while Mickelson joked about winning the tournament and getting the smaller check, he knew better.

“I didn’t play well the first three FedEx Cup events,” he said. “I don’t deserve to win the entire FedEx Cup just based on one tournament win. It’s got to be based on all four. So the way it worked out so far this year, it seems like it’s just. The best player won. The guy who played the best in all four events won.”

The star of the FedEx Cup was Woods. He had the best regular season (five victories), played the best in the playoffs (one victory, two runner-up finishes, his worst performance a tie for 11th), and finished the highest among the top five seeds at the Tour Championship.

What made the FedEx Cup interesting—which is all it should aspire to be— was Woods’ supporting cast:

— Heath Slocum. The tour kept saying that everyone who made the 125-man field to start the playoffs would have a chance at the $10 million prize. Slocum faced some of the longest odds as the No. 124 seed (by two measly points). He wound up winning The Barclays over Stricker, Woods, Els and Harrington to ensure himself one of the top seeds.

Whether that was fair will be among the topics to discuss, maybe even tweaked. But it showed that anything is possible.

— Marc Leishman. He was the only rookie at the Tour Championship, and the Australian defined performance under pressure.

He needed an eagle on the final hole at the Deutsche Bank Championship to advance to the third round, drilled his approach to about 10 feet and made the putt. A week later, he needed to finish third to make it to East Lake. Playing in the final group with Woods—they had never even met—he went bogey-free in the final round and shot 69 to tie for second.

— Brandt Snedeker. One of the most compelling moments of the month was watching Snedeker try to finish off a remarkable rally to get to the Tour Championship, then succumbing to the pressure.

That’s when the FedEx Cup looked a lot like Q-school.

Knowing a bogey would be enough on the final hole at Cog Hill, his 12-foot par putt ran some 3 feet by the hole. He jabbed at the bogey putt and missed, then missed the next one and took triple bogey to end his FedEx Cup season.

The 30th spot instead went to John Senden, who earlier had a 90-yard wedge to the green and chunked it so badly that it didn’t even reach the front bunker. The payoff was huge for Senden. That 30th spot was worth exemptions to three majors next year and $407,500 (prize money and FedEx Cup bonus) at the Tour Championship.

— Steve Stricker. His victory at the TPC Boston, where he birdied the last two holes for a one-shot victory, showed the value of the FedEx Cup. The practice range was full of chatter about the PGA Tour player of the year, which is a vote of the players. Stricker had three victories, and the feeling was he might get the vote if he were to win the FedEx Cup.

Woods then won the BMW Championship by seven shots for his sixth victory, and that was that.

Even then, Woods wound up sharing the spotlight with Mickelson. They finished 1-2 at East Lake—the ninth time in their careers they have done that, with Mickelson a winner in five of those events—and each went home with a big trophy.

The FedEx Cup faces one tough encore.


September 29, 2009

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