The images of golf's glory washed over the romantic's eye on Sunday at the Tour Championship, the very reasons the world's best test themselves on the toughest stage: the Green Jacket in April … America's national championship in June … the Claret Jug in July … and the newest addition to the lore, a check for $10 million, with a small portion placed in a tax-deferred retirement account.
Hmm. That last one, while undeniably satisfying to the capitalist in all of us, seems to sort of lack that classy sheen, doesn't it?
But, that's our lot, golf fans. We strayed away from the NFL on Sunday to watch Brandt Snedeker – he of the rapid-fire pace, Tom Watson-ish hands and fun-to-say last name – crank it up on the weekend in Atlanta, firing a 64-68 weekend to win the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup playoffs, with a points system that only your accountant can love.
So let's dismiss the byzantine scoring methods that deem Snedeker as FedEx Cup champ, despite playing more events than either Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods, yet with fewer wins, fewer top 10s and a higher scoring average. No hate for Snedeker here. I like his style, his demeanor, his golf swing and especially his putting stroke, which lit up East Lake and figures to be one of Davis Love III's best friends this week at the Ryder Cup.
Instead, let's focus on some takeaways from the last five weeks. Or, What We Learned from the 2012 FedEx Cup Playoffs:
• Rory is the New Tiger.
Save your emails of rage. Don't listen to me, dear reader (as if you needed a prompt). Listen to Snedeker himself. He told NBC a revealing anecdote after his triumph. He spoke of an emotional visit Sunday morning to an Atlanta hospital to visit ailing friend Tucker Anderson, seeking comfort and inspiration. Snedeker said he asked Anderson: "Do you think I can beat Rory McIlroy?" He said Anderson, in a responsive coma after an accident, answered with a wink, giving Snedeker a boost.
The key part of this anecdote is the scenario on Sunday. Any of five players – Snedeker, McIlroy, Woods, Nick Watney or Phil Mickelson – would win the FedEx Cup if he won the Tour Championship. Snedeker held the 54-hole lead. McIlroy was three strokes behind, Tiger four strokes behind.
And yet, Snedeker's story reveals whom he viewed as the Sunday threat – Rory. After winning the PGA Championship last month by eight strokes, then ripping off back-to-back wins the last two FedEx Cup events, McIlroy's presence has grown to near Tiger-esque realms. Greg Norman suggested as much in his now-famous "intimidated" comment, theorizing that Rory resides inside Tiger's increasingly bald dome. That one's up for debate, but Snedeker's remark carries with it a hint of change on the landscape.
I'm not saying Rory will go on a Tiger tear and win four consecutive majors or six tournaments in a row. In fact, I'm pretty darn sure he won't come close. That was inter-galactically mind-boggling stuff. But I am saying Snedeker and the others know what's up. They know who had shot 11 consecutive rounds in the 60s entering Sunday. They now look at the leader board and their eyes search for the name "MCILROY" before any other.
• Tiger is the New Uncertainty.
Once the safest bet in sports, Woods is now anybody's guess. That doesn't mean sports media still doesn't hyperventilate at any sign of life from the Chosen One. Sports web sites and highlight shows treated his Saturday 67 as if he made an historic surge. "TIGER RALLIES AT TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP" read one headline; "TIGER MAKES HIS MOVE" read another.
And then you looked at the leader board. Tiger shot 67. Great golf, sure. But if Tiger made his move with a 67, what exactly do you call Snedeker's Saturday 64 and 54-hole lead: chopped golf liver? An accompanying web site headline could have read: "SNEDEKER TO MEDIA: HEY, I'M OVER HERE!"
As if backing up his status as a weekend mystery, Tiger went out Sunday in four-over in his first six holes, playing himself out of it before the turn. He shot 72 and finished tie-8th, a full eight strokes back of Snedeker. Afterward, he didn't bother sugar-coating it. "I didn't have it," he said.
Usually, Tiger produces a wall of denial after a poor performance, stressing all the positive things he did. Now, after finishing up a season where he didn't bag the coveted "W" in any of his final eight starts – including two majors – Tiger seemed tired enough to not even try to deny it.
He's playing excellent, by anybody else's standards. He just went 3rd/tie-4th/tie-8th, and his three-win year will probably earn him runner-up votes in PGA Tour Player of the Year competition. That's a heck of a climb for a guy who started 2012 on a three-year winless drought on Tour, and whose knee seemed as uncertain as his putting stroke.
Still, what used to be certain in golf is no more. Tiger closing the deal is now, officially, a question mark.
• Despite Its Unsatisfying Ending, the FedEx Cup Playoffs Work, To Some Degree.
Every year, the end feels tacky and weird – hailing Jim Furyk or Bill Haas or Snedeker for leapfrogging tax brackets.
But, now in their sixth season, the FedEx Cup playoffs are here to stay, it seems. The players like the money, and the format of winnowing fields each week creates a degree of competition and natural selection.
And ultimately, for us couch potatoes, the product pops on TV. Tiger, Rory, Phil – not to mention Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Jim Furyk, and on and on – are engaged in playing September golf, not just planning out cruises to the Bahamas and checking their mutual fund balances on their smart phones while playing fantasy football.
As long as PGA commissioner Tim Finchem can keep McIlroy involved, and playing Stateside; and as long as Tiger burns to compete, as he has since he was four years old, the playoffs will be must-see TV.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
68-70-64-68 – 10-under 270, Brandt Snedeker, winner, Tour Championship, FedEx Cup playoffs, East Lake Golf Club, Atlanta, Ga.
Who is this boyish-looking Tennessean with the easy manner and 1970s' style, right down to his visor, his wavy hair and natural, handsy golf swing? He's Brandt Snedeker, that's who – American Ryder Cup rookie, two-time winner in 2012 and the guy whose mug shot on PGATOUR.com's FedEx Cup final standings is in the spot right ahead of Rory and Tiger, as if some prankster did some photo-shopping.
I hesitate to anoint Snedeker as the next force in golf, given that a year ago, Bill Haas won the $10 million – with a small portion placed in a tax-deferred retirement account, don't you know – and had a mostly forgettable 2012 season, with the strong exception of a win at Riviera.
There are signs Snedeker is coming into his own, an obvious sign being a take-home pay day of $11.4 million on Sunday, including $1.4 mil for the Tour Championship. His selection to the Ryder Cup by Love fuels the notion of his arrival as a top American player, even though he'd been known since his third-place finish at the 2008 Masters and two Tour wins prior to 2012.
Snedeker's win at Torrey Pines earlier this year was one of those weird deals where his triumph was obfuscated by Kyle Stanley's triple-bogey meltdown on the 72nd hole, blowing Stanley's sure win. And he has battled injuries in his career, withdrawing from the U.S. Open this year because of a rib injury, while missing time earlier in his career for hip surgery.
But his record 36-hole score of 10-under and halfway lead at Lytham's Open Championship this year – even though he shot 7-over on the weekend and finished tied for third – reminded many that this putting demon remained a threat. In fact, he led the Tour in strokes gained putting this year, a stat surely not lost on Love when it came time to draft his Ryder Cup squad.
If anything, we congratulate Snedeker for bringing back quick play to the Tour. Nothing beats the sight of Snedeker thumbing his nose at the slow-play grinders out there. He steps up and hits it, and if you missed the agonizing and wind-gauging and plumb-bobbing, well, sorry, pal. He's Brandt Snedeker, and he's here to hit a golf ball without too much drama beforehand.
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"That red shirt finally paid off for him." – Johnny Miller, NBC, on Tiger Woods' brilliant tee shot on the 72nd hole, a kick-in birdie.
[Also: Stars fill Ryder Cup rosters]
Look at Miller – as if he sensed the sun slipping over the horizon, the encroaching shadows of autumn, the last PGA Tour event on NBC for the 2012 season, he had to get one last rib-shot on Tiger's inability to close on Sundays.
As the kids might say: Johnny gonna be Johnny!
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
It brings me no pleasure to shine the spotlight on another Jim Furyk Moment, one of those moments that surely has Ryder Cup captain Love reaching for the antacid.
Already this year, we've seen Furyk, once one of the game's great fortresses of concentration, a rock once as solid as his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive legacy, show his 42 years worth of nerves. At Olympic Club, he watched his second U.S. Open title fizzle by snap-hooking his tee shot on the 70th hole, the par-5 16th. Then, at Firestone, he made a painful double-bogey on the final hole to let Keegan Bradley seize the World Golf Championship event in August.
And now, East Lake.
Furyk's play heading into the weekend seemed to solidify Love's choice of Furyk as a Ryder Cup captain's pick. His Friday 64 was pure Furyk, a dissection of a golf course through angles and approaches, precision and accuracy. He held the halfway lead at 7-under, and played good golf Saturday heading to the 17th hole, leading at 8-under.
Then, a Furyk Moment.
He rinsed his tee shot when he could least afford to, and had to re-tee. His third flew well right into the gallery, unsightly. His fourth found a bunker. He made triple-bogey 7, tumbled from the lead, shot 72 on Sunday and finished seventh, seven shots back of Snedeker.
Hey, fire up that Ryder Cup bus! Woo!
Now, now. Fortunately, we here at Lateral Hazard are kind enough to offer second chances. So, let's head back out to that 17th tee at East Lake, remind Furyk that Team Europe is scouting his every move, that Cap'n Love is counting on his old buddy at Medinah, let Furyk know that winning the Tour Championship would be a very cool thing for his resume, indeed and … give that man a mulligan!
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
What a question. Here's where we go from here: We put on our American flag tanktops, we blast the volume on Lee Greenwood's "Proud to Be An American" in the RV, we watch Rocky IV over and over (even if Drago doesn't play for Team Europe) and we fire up for the Ryder Cup. Boo yah.
U-S-A chants, anyone?
Come on, this is fun. Paul Azinger restored the zing to the Cup when he finally cracked the code of those lavender sweater-wearing Europeans and won at Valhalla in 2008. Time for Davis Love to make it two in a row on American soil.
Here's the fact of the day: Tiger has only been on one winning Ryder Cup team in his life, the 1999 Miracle at Brookline, about which Europe is still hacked off. Tiger was injured for the 2008 Ryder Cup, and I swear I thought the team chemistry was better without him.
But that was a different, pre-Escalade-into-a-tree Tiger. He's 36 and has wolfed down a few slices of humble pie since then. I predict he'll be dynamite for Love and Team USA.
Now, can we just get Love and Euro captain Colin Montgomerie in a room to fix the Sunday singles match between Rory and Tiger? Wink, wink, gents. Let's get it done. Blind draw, be damned!
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