Here they come, the top 30 players left in the FedEx Cup playoffs, marching toward Atlanta, and look who's the first guy off the plane:
Good ol' Tiger Woods.
Yep, in this weird year of five wins, no majors and oscillating golf balls, the Man in Sunday Red – or, in the case of the weather-delayed BMW Championships, Monday Red – still has the inside track at winning the Cup for the third time in his career, and for the first since his public fall from grace in 2009. Oh, and he'd win $10 million, so he'd like that, I'm sure.
All Tiger has to do is win the Tour Championship on Sunday, and the purse is his. Now, there are other, more complicated ways he can win it, but you don't want to know those ways, do you? You do? Aw, geez. I might get a headache, but suffice to say, he can finish as low as 29th at East Lake's Tour Championship, and he could still redeem his voucher for $10 mil.
The brief lead Henrik Stenson took in the FedEx Cup playoffs two weeks ago evaporated when Stenson stumbled his way to a final-round 74 Monday at Conway Farms outside of Chicago, and finished tied for 33rd. He got his money's worth, though, snapping the head off his driver on the 18th hole, belying the expressionless calm he usually plays with. The Simmerin' Swede has some fire. He thus tumbled to second in the FedEx Cup standings. Tiger, in a week where he came under criticism and two strokes of penalty in a semantic war over the difference between a ball "moving" and "oscillating," a topic we'll discuss later, finished tied for 11th at the BMW. He vaulted back into first overall in the FedEx Cup.
In fact, there are five players in position to win the big dough if they win the Tour Championship: Woods, Stenson, the FedEx Cup's No. 3 player Adam Scott, No. 4 Zach Johnson, fresh off his BMW win Monday, and No. 5 Matt Kuchar. Everybody else needs some form of algebraic help, but can also win the cake to buy a new private jet, a third home in Aspen or lots and lots of range balls.
Steve Stricker, at No. 6 in the standings, can win it all if he wins, and Tiger finishes tied for second or worse. That Stricker can win the Cup and the $10 mil in a year that started with his announcement of a "semi-retirement" speaks to a couple of things:
• A flawed system that rewards a guy only making his 13th start versus some grinders who support the PGA Tour by playing 25 events.
• He has the inside track to become the greatest "semi-retired" golfer in history. Most "semi-retired" guys are teeing off with their fellow retirees at 7 in the morning at the local muni, and finish by 10 a.m. so they can nap and prepare for a 4 p.m. dinner, followed by "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune." Not "Stricks." He called his shot at Kapalua, said he was going to play only majors and WGC events, and is playing such incredibly consistent golf, the rest of the Tour may announce their own semi-retirement to try and copy the guy.
The rest of the top 30 contains the usual suspects, like Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker; and some not-so-usual suspects, like Graham DeLaet, Jordan Spieth and Billy Horschel.
Oh, and Jim Furyk, the 11th seed, can win the $10 million with a win and some help. But we probably shouldn't talk about that. After Furyk on Monday blew a 54-hole lead yet again – the sixth time he's done that in the last six 54-hole leads – the less said about Furyk's closing ability, the better.
Got all that? Good, because PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem would hate if you confused it with your fantasy football stats on Sunday. In fact, Finchem's probably pretty sure you'll be checking your fantasy football stats on Sunday ahead of the East Lake scores, but all he asks is you save a little room for your "PGA Tour" app on your smart phone. After all, Tiger might win the darn thing, and that's worth your while. Right? Finchem won't wait for your answer.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
64-70-69-65 – 16-under 268, Zach Johnson, winner, FedEx Cup playoff BMW Championship, Conway Farms Golf Course, Lake Forest, Ill.
Outside of Drake University alums, and Iowa golf fans in general, how many of you have pondered Zach Johnson's career arc lately? You can put your hands down, you fibbers.
But if I went to the grease board and wrote down the bio of the following player, how would you evaluate it?
Ten career PGA Tour wins, including a Masters. Wins in seven of the last 10 years. Three Ryder Cup appearances for the USA. Three President's Cup appearances for the USA. An Official World Golf Ranking in the top 20.
On top of all that, let's say that Golfer X's final-round 65 on Monday at Conway Farms included two clutch late birdies as Golfer X zoomed past a stalling Furyk, prompting Johnny Miller to offer this early week evaluation: "He's had a pretty darn nice career."
You'd probably say: Why, you must be talking about Zach Johnson. Or, at least the Drake University alums and Iowa golf fans would, because they know all about the mild-mannered yet intensely competitive dude who bears a resemblance to the actor Joaquin Phoenix. Being devoutly religious, that's probably all Zach Johnson has in common with the Hollywood partyin' Phoenix.
You think Zach Johnson, and you think steady-eddie golf. His stats are a money-maker's dream: eighth on Tour in driving accuracy, 25th on Tour in greens in regulation, 30th on Tour in putting. You make a lot of purse hitting golf balls as consistently as that. Johnson made $4.5 million last year, and with Monday's win, is up to $3.7 million this year. He has a nice chance at the $10 million, and that'd buy a lot of hot dogs for the next Iowa Hawkeyes football tailgate he hosts.
Johnson is one of those super-nice guys who occasionally flash an edge, as he did when he tweaked the USGA for their Open setup at Merion; or when he sinks an important putt and bends over at the waist and unleashes a low-to-the-ground fist pump. Mostly, though, he is a competitively tough dude who at age 37 will remain a factor on Tour for the next few years, at least. That's Zach Johnson. But you knew that, from the grease board bio and all.
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
I'm tempted to give any of the Mullys o' the Week to Jim Furyk, who will have trouble remembering Conway Farms for his celebrated Friday 59, and will probably remember more another blown lead down the stretch. His two-shot lead at the turn disappeared when the veteran made three bogeys on his back nine. You hated to even think it, but you knew U.S. President's Cup captain Fred Couples did the right thing when he left his good buddy Furyk off this year's team. Furyk's 43-year-old nerves need a rest, it appears.
But the true M.O.W. has to go to El Tigre himself, of course, and The Case of the Oscillating Golf Ball. Or, as the PGA Tour rules officials saw it, The Case of the Moving Golf Ball.
By now, you've read about or seen the video of Tiger's second round, when he moved a loose impediment near his golf ball and his Nike pearl moved about one-quarter of a revolution. At least, that's what the Tour saw. Tiger saw something else. He saw "oscillation," and I think I was less embroiled in the appropriate interpretation of the rules then I was about the use of the word "oscillate," an incredible word that doesn't get used nearly enough in everyday life.
The dictionary defines "oscillate" as "to swing back and forth with a steady, uninterrupted rhythm," and Tiger is banking on that "back and forth" part to insist his ball's resting place never changed. It's a heck of a hair to split, calling for "oscillation" over good, old-fashioned "movement." If his ball moves, of course, and he doesn't acknowledge it, it's a penalty. The Tour showed Tiger the video after his round, and eventually slapped two strokes on Woods, and his frustration with it speaks to the oscillating reliability of eyewitness accounts. The U.S. Supreme Court has called eyewitness testimony "notoriously unreliable," which is just short of a ringing endorsement.
Point is, it doesn't matter what Tiger thinks he saw. The PGA Tour rules officials are like elementary school teachers in this case; what they say, goes. So Tiger can complain about oscillation all he wants, but in this case, the Tour is always right. Especially if its unreliable eyewitness account is different from Tiger's unreliable eyewitness account. Majority rules, and in this case, Slugger White of the PGA Tour is the majority.
But all credit to Tiger for fighting for the word "oscillate." A word that starts with "os-" hasn't got so much play since Holden Caulfield was upset about being "ostracized" by his prep school classmates in "The Catcher in the Rye." Tiger can relate. He probably felt ostracized over the oscillation.
But given Tiger's well-documented issues with rules this year – see, Masters, illegal drop; see, Abu Dhabi, embedded lie – he probably should know that it's best to err on the side of caution. If he called his ball for moving, he could assess himself a one-stroke penalty and move on with life. Because he didn't, and didn't replace it in its original spot, he got another stroke. And here we are again.
So, Tiger. Let's go back out to the second round of the BMW Championship, let you move that loose impediment, let you see the slightest of movement of your golf ball, let you think about the repercussions, let you remember your reputation and what you owe the game and let you assess yourself a penalty because we … gave that man a mulligan!
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"Clubs first, players second, caddies last." – Peter Jacobsen on NBC, laying out the hierarchy of dryness importance during a rainstorm on a golf course.
Rarely do you hear something boiled down so neatly. Jacobsen laid out a caste system that he says all caddies adhere to when moving that big golf umbrella around, and if that means the caddie has to walk around with clothes 10 pounds heavier soaked with water, well, it's all in a day's work. Remember this one, loopers. It should be knitted onto all embroidered pillows on the couches of caddy homes everywhere by caddy grandmothers.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Thirty men, thirty destinies, one Tour Championship. To East Lake, we go. And we promise: no oscillating, no ostracizing and no ostriches. All right, you try thinking of a word that begins with "os." Now, back to the golf.