Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods Prove Only Four Tournaments Matter in Golf

Atlanta is once again the host for the season-ending Tour Championship this week, which is either the PGA Tour's second biggest tournament of the year, after only the Players Championship in March, or its fifth biggest, after the Players and three World Golf Championship events.

Either way, the event's inflated purse (100K for last place, no cut) and exclusive field (top 30 on the money list) are not buying the credibility they're supposed to buy. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have opted out this week because, well, you know, it's a long season. The lucrative, heavily hyped FedEx Cup could get them back into the mix starting in 2007, but we'll see. Right now, the Tour is a non-entity as soon as the leaves start to change. Want to make more than a million bucks but keep your anonymity? Win on the PGA Tour in September or October. Better yet, just rack up a bunch of Top 10s and sneak away quietly.

The fall was a lifesaver for Troy Matteson, who won in Vegas and Top 10'd every other week to vault from 172nd to 36th in 2006 earnings, and earn a trip to Augusta. And K.J. Choi got his fourth win at the Chrysler Championship in Tampa, Florida, on Sunday.

But these are not men who get stopped for many autographs. You know your sport is in a down cycle, a R.E.M. cycle, when the biggest story is Jack Nicklaus dotting the "i" for the Ohio State marching band.

Tampa? There are as many "i"s in insignificant as there were TV viewers as Ernie Els tried to stay in the Top 30 in earnings and qualify for the Tour Championship. He did, with a pair of up-and-downs on his final two holes, but it spoke to the desperation of the star-lite, not very grand finale this week in Atlanta (or Mylanta, when Tour commish Tim Finchem found out Tiger wasn't coming).

A good indication of where golf ranks in the pro sports pecking order is ESPN News, and on Sunday evening, if a television viewer wanted to find out if Choi had hung on, he found golf stuck in a ticker traffic jam at the bottom of the screen. First there was the NFL, which was perfectly understandable. Then came NHL. Fine. Then MLS, in case anyone was pining for an update from the big Chivas USA vs. Houston tilt. I was not, but okay. Soccer is cool.

Then came BOXING, and news that police had made an arrest in the Trevor Berbick murder. No problem. If the ticker ever got to it, golf would be behind actual news. No shame in that.

But then came a cavalcade of insults, led by HORSE RACING (did something happen on the track?), BOWLING (spare me), NASCAR (of course) and NCAA FOOTBALL (and the new Associated Press poll). When those were followed by encores of NFL, NHL, MLS and BOXING, it seemed the golf news might have hit the cutting room floor in Bristol, Connecticut, but then a new word appeared: TENNIS. Rafael Nadal had pulled a stomach muscle. Poor guy.

And then there it was, right after some more tennis news: GOLF. Choi had won. Hurray. Now back to football. Perhaps it might have helped if a bigger name like Els had won, or if ESPN weren't about to take a long break from covering golf starting in 2007. It certainly would have kicked things up a notch if Mickelson and/or Woods had been at the Copperhead course at Innisbrook, but they can't even be bothered with the Tour Championship, which offers more money and is contested on a course both men play well. (Mickelson came from behind to beat Woods in one of the better Tour Championships in 2000.)















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