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BMW Championship Preview
Two weeks ago, the question being asked by golf writers and other shot-in-the-dark psychologists was what effect Tiger Woods's divorce might have on his golf game. A week or two before that, the question was what effect working with instructor Sean Foley might have. Now there's another factor involved following the 14-time major champion's inclusion in the Ryder Cup team as one of Captain Corey Pavin's four wild cards.
Moving smoothly into amateur psychology (speculation/conjecture . . . guesswork?) mode once again, it might very well be argued that the combination of all three could give Woods the peace of mind, technical assurance and opportunity for hero status that he needs to return to total global domination.
Think about it. Though any divorce is regrettable, Woods is surely now in a better position mentally than he was during the tense, traumatic weeks leading up to his official split from ex-wife Elin Nordegren. With all due respect to Hank Haney who helped him to six majors and 31 tour wins, Woods is already showing signs of feeling more comfortable with his swing; and at Celtic Manor in Wales he could inspire his teammates to a spectacular winning performance and secure enough points himself to quash 10 months' worth of bad press, resentment, vitriol and bitterness. If he were to return wrapped in the Stars and Stripes holding the golden chalice, all would surely be forgiven.
But what happens right now, in the BMW Championship at Cog Hill, with the Ryder Cup still three weeks away, and his working relationship with Foley still in its preliminary stages?
Well, if he is to continue any further in the race for the FedEx Cup and qualify for the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Woods must hope for some good Ryder Cup karma a little early and for Foley's philosophies to work some magic in him a little sooner than expected.
He arrives in Chicago 51st in the FedEx Cup rankings, probably needing to finish fifth or better in order to advance to the Tour Championship at East Lake GC in Atlanta. It goes without saying that never before has he entered the third playoff event with the threat of elimination hovering so menacingly overhead.
In 2007, he was in third position at the start of BMW Championship week after leading the FedEx competition through the regular season, skipping the Barclays and finishing tied for second at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Phil Mickelson, who won the Deutsche Bank, was atop the rankings that year with Steve Stricker, who had won the Barclays, in second. Woods shot an incredible 22-under-par 262 on Cog Hill's Dubsdread Course - for the fourth of his five wins on the Dick Wilson/Joe Lee layout - however, thus regaining the lead in the FedEx Cup which he won a week later at East Lake following a masterful eight-shot victory over Zach Johnson and Mark Calcavecchia.
In 2008, Woods underwent knee surgery which saw him sit out the entire playoff series, but he was back in Lemont, Ill., last year, second in the rankings behind only Stricker who had won the Deutsche Bank the previous week. But again, Woods decimated the course, and the field, shooting a course record 62 in the third round and completing 72 holes in 265, -19 to take control of the FedEx Cup, he would win it for a second time two weeks later after finishing second to Mickelson in Atlanta.
How Woods deals with his unprecedented set of circumstances this week is undoubtedly the top storyline, before the tournament starts at least. But also creating a good deal of interest will be the tournament within the tournament to see who can finish the week inside the top five in the rankings and therefore guarantee winning the Cup at East Lake in two weeks' time with a victory in the Tour Championship (everyone else in the 30-man field will need to win and get a little help from the competition).
At present, the top five includes three and a half players you never would have expected to see so high up the rankings at this stage of the season. Two of those surprise players sit at the very top of "FedEx Mountain." Matt Kuchar, who won the Barclays in extra holes and who has amassed 10 top-10 finishes so far this year, leads Charley Hoffman, who won in Boston with a final round 62, by 976 points. Next, 283 points behind Hoffman, is Stricker whose lofty position is not so remarkable given how he has become a more-or-less permanent fixture on playoff leaderboards the last three years. In fourth position is the third of the unforeseen contenders - Jason Day who graduated to the PGA tour after finishing fifth on the Nationwide Tour in 2007. Despite being followed onto the main stage by a fair amount of hype (some of it from his own lips), the Aussie managed just four top-10 finishes in his first two and a half years on the PGA Tour, but finally broke into the winners' circle in May with a two-shot victory at the HP Byron Nelson Classic in Irving, Texas. More recently, he finished tied for 10th at the PGA Championship, tied for fifth at the Barclays and tied for second last week in Boston.
Fifth is England's Luke Donald, who has won twice in America and three times in Europe, partnered with Paul Casey to victory at the 2004 WGC World Cup, and who has appeared inside the world's top 10 a total of 76 weeks since first cracking the seal in March 2006, but who has never finished higher than 30th in FedEx Cup's final standings.
He is the half, you understand - clearly a world-class performer who hasn't yet joined the elite of the elite.
Of these five, only Kuchar, who won the 1997 U.S. Amateur at Cog Hill, is certain to still be among the players who go to East Lake knowing victory will earn them the $10 million bonus, regardless of what happens this week - even if he finishes last of the 70 players, he will drop only two places into 3rd on the list, while Hoffman and Stricker are all but assured the same. Day and Donald will need to finish inside the top 10.
Also worth noting this week will be the performances of players set to play in the Ryder Cup October 1-3 at Celtic Manor. All 12 members of the U.S. team are in the field for the BMW, while only three of the Europeans - Donald, Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy - will start. Both captains, Pavin and Colin Montgomerie, have stressed the importance of having confident players on their teams, so a victory for any of the 15 golfers in Chicago this week who are headed to Wales will be used as ideal material for motivational speeches to be given prior to the first morning's fourballs (only Martin Kaymer and Ross Fisher from the European team are playing the KLM Open in Holland this week).
Pavin will be looking for an improvement in Mickelson's form as he will probably hope to play the world No. 2 in all five matches. The left-hander dropped to 14th in the FedEx rankings following a tie for 25th last week, and hasn't finished in the top 10 since the U.S. Open in June. Hunter Mahan's form has dipped slightly since winning the Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio, while Jim Furyk needs to restore some confidence after a couple of mediocre performances recently and Jeff Overton has gone off the boil completely since automatically qualifying for the team.
As is the case at virtually every PGA Tour event these days, there are numerous sub-plots and interesting asides to be followed. The main topic of conversation, however, will be whether or not Tiger's more settled private life, the development of his work with Sean Foley, and his being picked for the U.S. Ryder Cup team can reactivate whatever it was in him that made him so brilliant for so long.
If they don't, the Tour Championship will likely go ahead without the current world number one in the field. How weird would that be?
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.