There are few easier opportunities for the cynics of the golf world than the PGA Tour's FedExCup playoffs. It's target practice for the pundits, starting with the inherently weak foundation of the "playoffs" – to try and compete with a century-plus of history in golf's hallowed major championships.
The FedExCup playoffs offer $10 million as a bounty, and the big sack of cash only seems to personify their desperation, as if saying: Can we buy your affection?
Contrived, irrelevant and seemingly fecklessly boosted by the dry monotone of PGA commissioner Tim Finchem while a nation intently focuses its eyes on the dawn of the NFL season, the FedExCup playoffs can often be viewed as one of the sports world's lamer inventions.
Except, the FedExCup playoffs totally ruled on Sunday.
Says the Commish to all of us doubters: How 'bout them apples?
Or, more accurately: How 'bout them apples, and how about Rory McIlroy's continued ascent to the stratosphere, Phil Mickelson's thrilling return to form, Vijay Singh's stirring of old memories, Lee Westwood's ferocious attempt to dethrone his young Ryder Cup teammate McIlroy, Dustin Johson's crazy athleticism on display and Tiger Woods' repeated, agonizing tilting at Rory's windmill, all on hi-def TV for your viewing pleasure?
This past weekend, the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick gave us all that. A check of the scoreboard: Tim Finchem's FedExCup playoffs 1, Snarks Like Me 0.
Listen, I have no clue who is leading the mighty FedExCup playoff points. One would presume it's Rory, whose ball-striking, Dave Stockton-coached putting and robust self-assurance is meshing together to produce golf so brilliant, it even put the smallest of dents into the American sports scene on the holy day that is NFL Kickoff Sunday. His feats are, put simply, Tiger-esque: No player has won three times in four starts since Tiger did in 2009. He has four wins in 15 starts, a win percentage of .266 that is in Tiger's otherworldly realm. Even Tiger told NBC that McIlroy is "putting on a show" on the golf course. Tiger seems so dazzled by it, reports were that Tiger spent the week socializing with Rory, eating lunch with Rory, joking with Rory – almost as if he was working up the nerve to ask for his autograph.
Point is, it doesn't matter who's leading the FedExCup points. What matters is, Finchem's $10 million show has produced what he's wanted – the best of the best, playing their best. The Commish wins.
It isn't always like this. For example: Quick, who won the FedExCup playoffs last year?
What, you're not down with the Bill Haas 2011 DVD highlight reel?
No disrespect to Haas, one of the nice guys and a helluva player. But too often, the FedExCup has seen lesser names like Charley Hoffman and Heath Slocum and Haas winning in the playoffs, and it's easy for us to ignore it, and watch college football on Saturday and America's national religion on Sundays instead. All along, Finchem and the Tour hoped the leaderboard would climax like it did at Crooked Stick on Sunday, in what Johnny Miller called a "perfect storming" with all the names and the storylines.
It helps that Tiger is healthy and playing his best golf since before he took the Escalade into the tree on Thanksgiving Night 2009, and burns to prove to everyone that he's all the way back. His motivation is high. And it helps that Singh – despite a Sunday 73 after holding the 54-hole co-lead – is in some sort of 49-year-old renaissance, backing up his tie for ninth at the British Open and his weekend contention at the PGA Championship. And that Mickelson is interested and concentrating again, coming out of a three-month summer slide in which he failed to notch a top-10, by now racking up his second consecutive top-five finish.
At none of the four majors this year, by way of contrast, did Tiger and Rory tangle on the leaderboard on the Sunday; much less Tiger and Rory and Phil and Vijay and Dustin and Lee.
Without the FedExCup playoffs, in pre-2007 golf, these players would be scattered around the globe, either channel-surfing on their couches, or playing in Europe, or playing on-again, off-again before the Ryder Cup.
Now, we have the FedExCup playoffs in all their glory, which rhymes with Rory, who is the big story. Well-done, Commish. We're in. Can't wait for the finale.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
65-67-71-68 – 17-under 271, Tiger Woods, tie-4th, FedExCup BMW Championship, Crooked Stick GC, Clay, Ind.
Tiger earned Scorecard of the Week honors last week, for posting four rounds in the 60s for the first time since September 2009. Add in that card listed above, Tiger has now shot in the 60s in seven of his last eight rounds – good enough for bupkes in the winner's circle.
And he's driving the golf ball so well. If it seems we're seeing Tiger play from the fairway more often than ever, it's because we are. He's ranked 45th on Tour in driving accuracy. By way of comparison, Tiger ranked 152nd on Tour in driving accuracy in 2007 – and he won SEVEN times, including a major.
That shows you how crazy good Tiger was with his iron game back then. And his putter used to be the world's most dangerous sporting implement. Nobody messed with Tiger's putter. It kicked your butt if you did. I remember the late Byron Nelson saying he never saw anybody read a green as well as Tiger; it was just one of his many skills on the putting green.
And now? His putter isn't a sizzling flatstick; it's flat ordinary. Consider that on Sunday Tiger failed to birdie a single par-5 – by missing four birdie tries, each from inside of 15 feet. If the old Tiger doesn't make four of four from inside of 15 feet for birdie on a Sunday of a big tournament, he makes three or, at worst, two. The 2012, 36-year-old Tiger? Zero. And he finished three shots back of McIlroy. You do the math.
Throw in a missed 3-footer on the sixth hole, and you almost begin to count on Tiger NOT making putts when he stands over them. That he's blistering the leaderboards and posting rounds in the 60s by the bushel without that putter has to be an indirect source of inspiration to Tiger, but the larger feeling must be an anguished, sick feeling of loss, wondering: Has the stroke gone away for good?
Miller, on NBC, watched Tiger miss a makeable birdie try on the 18th hole and said, succinctly: "That's the difference between Tiger now, and Tiger of a few years ago."
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"The players are really into it now." – PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, on NBC, dryly stating his case for the FedExCup playoffs.
The playoffs were instituted in 2007, and Tiger won them in '07 and '09. Vijay won them in '08. Jim Furyk won them in 2010, in a pouring rain, and Haas won them last year. For the most part, none of you remembered any of that. Now, you're fired up for the Tour Championship in 2012.
A huge break for Finchem was the decision of international stars like McIlroy, Westwood and Louis Oosthuizen to play in the playoffs this year, lending weight and credibility to the fields. Last year, at the Tour Championship, it was the likes of Aaron Baddeley and K.J. Choi in the final two pairings – nice players, but not like the star power the big boys provide.
Asked if he thought the playoffs were important, McIlroy answered in the affirmative, adding: "I'm playing against the best players in the world every week. Last week, it was Louis and Vijay and Tiger; this week, it's Lee and Phil and Tiger and Vijay."
Does this mean the players are "into it" now, as Finchem said, and September heavyweights will be an annual staple for the Tour? Too early to say, but right now Finchem can pop his jersey to haters. That is, if Tim Finchem were the kind of guy to pop a jersey. Maybe pop a lapel pin of an American flag? Or pop his sport coat?
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
Even though McIlroy had a three-stroke lead in the final holes, Mickelson wasn't done with him. He birdied 15 and 16 and got within two strokes, and had a chance to make a move on the 17th hole if he could stiff his tee shot to the par-3 hole.
Unfortunately, as he is wont to do, Lefty mishit it and wound up in a horrible lie in the rough, down a hillside below the flagstick. And then, as he is wont to do, Lefty hit a brilliant chip to three feet. What a show this guy is.
Now, if he could surely make the par putt, he could hope for a birdie on 18, and perhaps a bogey from Rory (which happened) and maybe a playoff, right?
Except, Phil missed the 36-incher. Ack.
Everything about Mickelson's day was so good up 'til then. He brought back the 'Lefty Grin' for most of the day, tipped the visor, threw balls to kids – and even was the beneficiary of NBC's Peter Jacobsen relating the anecdote of how Phil stopped by a lemonade stand on Sunday morning and gave the two little girls working it a crisp $100 bill for the lemonade, instructing them to keep the change.
One thousand percent tipping? Lefty was back!
Unfortunately, that means the Lefty who will miss 3-footers on the 71st hole was back, too.
So, in the interest of a Rory-Phil playoff, and in the interest of those two little lemonade-stand girls who surely bought a year's worth of Barbie dolls and bubble gum with Phil's C-note, let's go back out to the 17th green, remind Phil of how good things were going and how he had a chance to do something that would fire up his San Diego Chargers before their Monday Night game in Oakland, place that golf ball three feet from the cup and … give that Lefty a mulligan!
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Everybody take a deep breath. McIlroy will NOT win a golf tournament this week. The FedExCup playoffs take a bye week before the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta, which then dovetails right into the Ryder Cup at Medinah. So, use this upcoming weekend to work on your short game, watch some football and maybe see if Paula Creamer and Jiyai Shin can play an infinite amount of playoff holes. The LPGA stars played the 18th hole eight times – and each made par eight times – before darkness called it at the Kingsmill Championship, to be resumed Monday.
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