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BMW Championship Preview - Is Stricker in the Driver's Seat?
By winning the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston with closing rounds of 65 and 67, and moving a point or two ahead of Sergio Garcia on the list in the not-very-compelling and totally unoffical contest to identify the world's best player yet to win a major, Steve Stricker did Tim Finchem and the PGA Tour a huge favor by pumping some genuine excitement into this year's FedEx Cup.
No one really knew what to make of Heath Slocum's win at the Barclays two weeks ago and his resulting climb to No. 3 in the standings. Though a player of his talent is certainly capable of winning big tournaments, there are plenty who believe his victory will prove something of a one-off. Stricker's win, by contrast, was significant not only because it took him past Tiger Woods on the points list, but also because it will likely have a far greater bearing on the outcome of this year's competition.
In short, Stricker has got people talking.
Which is odd because the man from Edgerton, Wis. - two hours from Chicago one way and 10 minutes from the middle of nowhere the other - is hardly golf's most charismatic individual. The 42-year-old, a terribly nice fellow whose wife Nikki used to caddie for him on the PGA Tour, has been a professional golfer for nearly 20 years and in that time has provided about as much stimulation for TV viewers as Woods does in 20 seconds.
But thanks to his brilliant display in at the TPC Boston, not to mention his season's two other wins, two seconds, one third, and four additional top-10s, Stricker is sufficiently far enough ahead of Slocum, still third, that even if the 35-year-old from Louisiana stunned the world by winning again, Stricker would remain ahead of him in the standings. The seven-time PGA Tour winner is in a great position to pull another Y.E. Yang on the world's No. 1 golfer by denying him a trophy that was his, bar the shouting.
And that is what is suddenly making this year's playoffs, and the final few weeks of the 2009 season, so enthralling. It is also what will surely guarantee record audiences for the final two events. Yang was the first Asian-born winner of a major championship but, equally important, he became the first player to take Tiger down in the final round of a major in which Tiger held the lead through 54 holes. It meant Woods failed to win one of the four Grand Slam events in 2009, and should he also fail to pick up the FedEx Cup, the question of whether or not his contemporaries finally have his number will inevitably arise.
In looking for a reason to explain Woods's recent losses, no one need look any further than the putter. Normally so dependable with the flat stick, Woods averaged a miserable 1.83 putts per green in the final round of the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, and 1.79 over four rounds at the Barclays where he missed a 6-footer on the 72nd green that Noah would have bet the Ark on him making. At the Deutsche Bank last week, his numbers were 1.86, 1.77 and a ghastly 1.9 putts for every green in regulation that he hit during the first three rounds. A closing 63 on Monday, when he hit just 1.46 putts per GIR, put some shine on an otherwise tainted performance but, of course, it was too little too late.
The potential for a Woods-less set of majors and a FedEx Cup with three different names inscribed on it (Woods won in 2007, Vijay Singh last year but did not qualify for this week's BMW Championship) is therefore very real. And if, indeed, he does lose the FedEx Cup, Stricker is definitely the man poised to snatch it away.
But with 2,500 points going to the winner at Cog Hill this week and all points being reset prior to the Tour Championship in three weeks' time (there is a gap of a week between the last two tournaments), someone lurking a little further down the list still has the potential to spring a surprise, just as Jason Dufner did last week by hoisting himself from 57th to 9th; not quite as impressive a leap as Slocum's but profitable nonetheless.
If Chad Campbell wins in Chicago, for instance, the Texan will have 3,316 points and, depending on what the other 69 players in this week's field get up to, he should find himself in the top 10 heading to Atlanta. If he does qualify in 10th place, he will then start Tour Championship week with his allotted 600 points - 1,900 behind either Woods or Stricker, who are the only two players that can arrive in Georgia with the lead.
Campbell will then have a good chance of winning the FedEx Cup. He will still need to emulate Camilo Villegas, who won the last two playoffs 12 months ago, and also rely on others higher up the list not to secure enough points to surpass him, but it could happen.
It won't though, because at some point between now and Sunday at the Tour Championship, you've got to believe Tiger is going to regain his form on the greens and romp home, Steve Stricker notwithstanding. If he can combine his putting stroke from Monday with the sublime ball-striking he has produced since returning home from Turnberry, he will undoubtedly add to the four wins he already has at Cog Hill and be seeded No. 1 for the FedEx Cup finale.
As for the points system, it is still a tad complex perhaps and, judging from some players' comments, it is clear their understanding of how the accumulation of points works is no better than what it was last year, or the year before that. Plus, although the year's two most consistent performers have made it to the top of the points table this time around, there still exists the chance of a shock and, for a player who really hasn't been the season's most impressive, to walk off with the $10 million.
But the question that's forming, in some observers' minds at least, is why that scenario should be regarded as a bad thing necessarily. The R&A's "Champion Golfer for the Year" isn't always that season's actual champion golfer. Ben Curtis would be the first to admit his win at the Open Championship, at Royal St. George's in 2003, was a little unexpected and that Woods, with five wins, 12 top-10s and over $6.6 million in earnings, probably had the edge when it came to voting for the year's best player.
What this series of playoffs is demonstrating, beyond doubt, is that having the world's best compete simultaneously on a weekly basis is what matters most. Yes, it would be nice if that could coincide with a system that everyone understood, and it would add to the Cup's credibility if it could more or less guarantee the season's best player won every year.
But as long as we get three, possibly four, exciting weeks of competitive golf at the end of the season, does it really matter if it doesn't?
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. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.