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On the most important tee shot of his entire life, Jim Furyk came up short.
He stood on the 18th tee at the Tour Championship, hours of rain having soaked all of East Lake to the bone. All he needed was a three-stroke par to clinch both the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup playoffs. A simple par would keep Furyk one stroke ahead of Luke Donald and stave off the need for a sudden-death playoff. A simple par, the kind of play Furyk has pulled off tens of thousands of times in his career.
He put his tee shot in the sand. With an $11 million payday on the line, Furyk beached it. And suddenly, what had looked for the last hour like a coronation – Furyk had been three strokes up on the field with three holes to play – suddenly turned a lot more interesting.
So then came what was surely the longest walk of Furyk's life. The 18th is only 235 yards long, but for Furyk, it must have taken forever. Get up and down from a soaked greenside bunker onto a green with more sudden drops than the stock market? Difficult even without the pressure of the day riding Furyk's back. One weak chip and a two-putt, and Furyk would drop into a playoff with Donald. And, heaven forbid, a three-putt – not unthinkable in the near-Biblical conditions – and Furyk's dream tournament would evaporate.
Furyk's swing has been compared to an octopus falling out of a tree so often that he ought to trademark the phrase. But it's true; he's got a looping, unconventional slap that nonetheless sends the ball where he wants it to go far more often than not. And on this day, he was concerned with neither grace nor contemplation; stroke after stroke, he stepped up to the ball, tightened up on the club, and let fly.
As Furyk circled the green, looking for the best place to land his hypothetical/ideal shot, the overhead video screens indicated that his ball sat 55 feet, 5 inches from the hole. And here's what happened next:
Furyk stepped into the bunker, addressed the ball, and without a wasted moment – because an instant is all it takes for the doubts to creep in – he unfurled the shot of his career, a beauty of a bunker blast that sailed just past the cup, hit, spun, and wandered a few inches back toward the cup.
Distance to the pin: two feet, five inches.
One tap-in later – another shot which Furyk scarcely paused to practice – and both the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup were his.
"Under the situation, it was a tough shot," Furyk said. "But you take the situation out, and it wasn't overly tough. The sand was firm, the ball was sitting up, I had a lot of green to work with." Furyk noted that he had been dead-on with his sand shots all week – nine-for-nine – so he was feeling pretty confident about his chances.
It was a dramatic turnaround. Four weeks ago, at the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs, Furyk was literally a punch line. At the Barclays, he overslept and missed the start of a Wednesday pro-am – he later blamed his alarm clock – and received the absurdly harsh penalty of disqualification from the entire tournament.
Fortunately, he'd played well enough throughout the season that he was able to remain in contention in the playoffs. Golf desperately needs to keep its marquee players in the playoff mix, and Furyk was able to exploit this loophole in a way that, say, a player at Wimbledon or a driver in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series couldn't. Miss a match or a race, and you're done. Miss a tournament, and you just slide a few notches down the ladder.
Even so, PGA Tour officials should embrace Furyk with as much love as his wife Tabitha did immediately after the victory. Furyk's triumph provided a memorable, remarkable ending to a playoff system that has received widespread criticism – when, in fact, it's drawn notice at all. Situated directly against the start of the NFL season, saddled with a scoring system so incomprehensible not even its competitors know what's going on, handicapped by the failure of the game's top player to advance to the final round, the FedEx Playoffs have been a lurching, ungainly patchwork of rules, regulations and – on the PGA Tour's part – prayers that Furyk somehow managed to answer. Like college football's BCS, the system was saved from itself, despite itself.
Next up for Furyk is the Ryder Cup. While Furyk was posing with his two new trophies, the rest of his teammates were headed to a charter plane, leaving Atlanta at 10 p.m. ET en route to Wales.
But Furyk didn't need to rush. After all, with what he earned from his miracle chip, he could buy his own plane.
"This tournament is only 4 years old," Furyk said afterward, his hand on the FedEx Cup, "but 40 years from now, it's going to be something big. And that trophy's going to read [winners] Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk. I'm pretty proud of that."
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