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More than Appearances at FedEx Cup

By: Tony Dear


When was the last time you read anything disparaging about the FedEx Cup? Seriously, when did you last hear anyone say anything bad about it?

Four years ago when the PGA Tour's over-hyped, but under-appreciated, scheme for season-ending drama first appeared, you would probably have had to go direct to PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to find a single person who, when asked for their opinion of it, didn't immediately grimace and let fly with an ill-mannered tirade lasting 30 seconds or more.

You didn't need the fingers of both hands to count the number of tour players that understood its complexities: cerebral card-holders like financial whiz Joe Ogilvie, and Mark Wilson who majored in mathematics at UNC grasped its finer points better than the average tour member for whom the system was a closed book. The media let Commissioner Tim Finchem know exactly how it felt, and the general consensus among the viewing public was that its enjoyment of golf telecasts had diminished significantly because no one at home could explain what effect Tiger's putt for birdie on the 17th hole would have on the standings.

The Tour couldn't fail to heed the insults, so wisely made amendments for the second year and then again for the third when players' points were reset following the penultimate playoff event, the BMW Championship in Chicago, instead of immediately after the last regular season event. The schedule was also altered to allow for a week's break between the BMW and the Tour Championship in Atlanta.

The golf media has had a lot to report since November 2008 when those changes were made, and the end of the 2009 season when they were first put into action. The space given to Woods and his off-course dalliances, followed by his Masters' comeback and summer of frustration left little room for discussion relating to the FedEx Cup.

There were two main reasons for that. Firstly, news (and, yes, even rampant speculation) about Woods was a darn sight more interesting than yet more tedious analysis of the latest version of the FedEx Cup. Second, it was felt that the Tour had actually done whatever was necessary to give the competition at least a look of credibility.

Some of the players, and probably a portion of the viewing public, still didn't get it. But there was no doubt interest was maintained for longer and the Tour Championship was a more exciting tournament for the changes.

Though highly unlikely a contingency, even the 30th ranked player - John Senden - arrived in Georgia with an opportunity of winning the cup along with the $10million prize money, and three players still had a realistic chance of denying Woods his second FedEx Cup (he had won the first in 2007) as late as the back nine on Sunday. In fact, it was two birdies late in the day that ensured the Tiffany trophy returned to its rightful owner, the man who had won six times in 2009, double that of anybody else.

As mentioned above, analyzing the workings of the FedEx system is more or less redundant these days, and one is reluctant to go there, but the fact that so many players had a chance of winning the Cup at the final event raises a valid question about whether or not it might one day end up in entirely the wrong hands.

What might the reaction be, if indeed, Senden did pull a billion-to-one shot 12 months ago and walk off with the silver? The Aussie is a fine player of course, but he arrived at East Lake GC with six fewer victories, 5,664 fewer FedEx points and several million dollars less than Woods had accumulated in 2009. The hope is that the man who hoists the Cup at the end of a grueling season is the man who has consistently played the best. Senden was not that man last year, and his winning the Cup would have rendered the competition totally meaningless.

But it didn't happen, so the format remains the same for the time being. And given that no system can ever be perfect, perhaps the FedEx Cup can now spend eternity in its present form, untouched and intact forever more.

The leader in the standings for this week's first playoff event, the Barclays, being played at Ridgewood CC in Paramus, N.J., is Ernie Els, who has won twice and finished third twice this year. There are perhaps too many off-weeks in a typical Els season nowadays for him to be considered a hot favorite for the FedEx title, but the "Big Easy" has shown considerably more signs of his former self in '09 than he did in the years immediately following the 2005 boat accident that severely injured his right knee.

The South African missed the cut here in 2008, the last time the Barclays was held on the A.W. Tillinghast-designed course (made up of holes from the Center, West and East Nines), but he arrives in decent form having finished in the top 20 at Whistling Straits in the PGA Championship, and with the Tour's best stroke average - 69.68. Els was joint runner-up in the event last year when played at Liberty National in Jersey City, N.J., though it's unlikely that result will have any effect Els's outcome this week as that venue has very little in common with Ridgewood.

Els will play the first two rounds with Steve Stricker and Phil Mickelson, Nos. 2 and 4 in the current standings. The original plan was for Jim Furyk, third on the list, to be part of the Els/Stricker group, but Furyk was disqualified on Wednesday for failing to make his pro-am tee-time.

Stricker won this event in 2007, the last time it was played at Westchester CC, and finished T19, alongside Mickelson, the last time it was played at Ridgewood. The Wisconsinite's solid, reliable game would appear to be ideally-suited to Ridgewood's tight, traditional, tree-lined layout, more so than perhaps Mickelson's, and certainly more than that belonging to Tiger Woods, whose mental fortitude was once thought to be impenetrable but which has clearly been shaken by events leading up to his divorce finalized Monday.

What frame of mind the breakup (which cost him $100 million according to just about everybody but Fox News, which put the settlement at a somewhat more substantial $750 million) will put Woods in is anyone's guess. Could it free up some space in his head for the sort of thoughts conducive to good golf that have obviously been absent of late? Or will it just add to the trauma, blocking the flow of what positive energy he might have felt recently after two encouraging sessions with instructor Sean Foley? Apparently the pair worked a good deal together last week, so it will be interesting to see both his demeanor and his swing.

At 112th in the standings, the man still clinging to the world's top spot will need a good week to avoid going out of the competition altogether. In short, Woods has to make the cut if he is to have any chance of joining the other 99 players qualifying for the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston.

We're all waiting for Tiger to explode out of the funk he's been in for a while and regain the dominance he enjoyed for a decade. No reason why it can't be this week. But then again, it might just as likely Heath Slocum, who won the Barclays at Liberty National last year. Or if not Slocum, someone like Ryan Moore, or how about Marc Leishman who showed good form at Whistling Straits two weeks ago?

So many potential winners as usual, no little amount of excitement. Yep, the FedEx Cup is definitely building a foothold.

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.