Tiger looks to earn spot in the Tour Championship, more to watch this week

Tiger Woods needs at least a tie for fifth place this week to advance in the FedEx Playoffs.
Mike Ehrmann/SI

Matt Bettencourt, Derek Lamely and Bill Lunde are among the pros to have won on the PGA Tour in 2010. Don't know them? Couldn't identify them on the street?

How about Tiger Woods? He's trailing that illustrious threesome in the wins column. His best finish has been two T4s at the Masters and U.S. Open, and he last triumphed on Tour at the BMW Championship on Sept. 13, 2009, which means we are approaching the one-year anniversary of that victory.

Once again, Woods will dominate the news at the BMW at Chicago's Cog Hill starting Thursday, but this time it's for very different reasons. The biggest question in golf has become whether Woods can dig himself out of the mother of all bunkers in time to salvage his 2010 season and in the process save the underdog U.S. Ryder Cup team.

The story has taken some interesting turns.

First, Woods has shown signs of life. Of his last eight rounds, five have been in the 60s, including two 65s. He shot three rounds in the 60s for the first time all year at the Deutsche Bank (T11). That came on the heels of a T12 finish at the Barclays.

After submitting to the tutelage of Sean Foley for the last month, Woods is starting to find consistency, and not a moment too soon. At 51st in the FedEx standings, he must climb at least 21 spots at the BMW in order to reach the Tour Championship.

Another arresting development is that people — Tour pros, media, fans (some of whom never wavered) — are beginning to get behind Tiger's comeback in a big way.

"He's a welcome addition," U.S. Ryder Cup assistant Davis Love III told the AP of Tiger's selection as a captain's pick Tuesday, "because we want to wrap our arms around him and bring him back to us."

European captain Colin Montgomerie echoed that he was "delighted" that Woods had been chosen, and added, "The Ryder Cup is a better event with him in it."

It's been a strange year, the first one in history in which the American tabloids took a real interest in golf. Woods didn't have a friend in the world; now he has them on both sides of the Atlantic.

He hasn't gone a full season without a win on Tour since 1995, when he didn't even play the Tour and was in his second and final year at Stanford. Even in his most fruitless season, when he was making swing changes under Butch Harmon in 1998, Woods eked out a single victory at the BellSouth Classic.

He's in the middle of making yet another swing change now, this time under Foley, and just beginning to dust himself off after the sex scandal that sold a million magazines and his ensuing lawyer-filled divorce from Elin Nordegren.

Whatever you think of Woods, by far the game's most polarizing figure, his comeback is a matter of national importance, in a way, because America's Ryder Cup team will need a hot Woods and Phil Mickelson if it's to put up a fight in Wales, Oct. 1-3.

Because of the bake-off nature of the FedEx Cup playoffs, Woods doesn't need a win at this week's BMW at Cog Hill, where he's won five times as a pro. He needs at worst a tie for fifth place to get into the 30-man Tour Championship in two weeks.

"I feel like my game is not very far away," he said Tuesday.

Neither is the Tour Championship, or the Ryder Cup. Woods needs to keep stress-testing his new swing, but if he fails to qualify for the Tour Championship he'll get what amounts to a two-week furlough from the PGA Tour. That's no way to get better.

Would the world No. 1 deign to drop down a division and play in the Nationwide Tour's Albertsons Boise Open next week, or the WNB Classic in Midland, Texas, the week after? It would be the golf equivalent of tennis player Andre Agassi playing Challenger events while reinventing himself mid-career, but it's not likely. That makes the do-or-die (do-or-vacation, really) BMW all the more critical for Woods.

Mickelson is another story. Since he won the Masters and finished second at Quail Hollow, he's been erratic even for him. His final-round 76 at the Deutsche Bank, where he was on the verge of possibly unseating Woods atop the World Ranking, came a month after a final-round 78 at the WGC-Bridgestone under similar circumstances.

Mickelson seems to be either pressing or fatigued, or both. He's dropped to 14th in FedEx Cup playoff points, which means he's not guaranteed a spot in the Tour Championship. (The top 13 are said to be safe to reach the playoff season-ender.)

Two other subplots this week will focus on 42-year-old Michigan pro Tom Gillis, who is coming off his career-best finish on Tour (T5 at the Deutsche Bank after back-to-back 65s on the weekend), and Argentine Andres Romero.

Gillis, the winner of the 1994 Jamaican Open, moved from 92nd to 48th in FedEx points with his big weekend in Boston. He'll have to climb 18 more places at the BWM.

Like Woods, who started the playoffs at 108th in the FedEx race, Romero began the four-week stretch outside the top 100. He's risen to 68th. No player who started outside the top 100 has ever advanced to the Tour Championship.

On other tours this week:

Fourteen of the top 15 players in the world will tee it up at the LPGA's P&G Northwest Arkansas Championship at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, Ark., including No. 1 Ai Miyazato, already a five-time winner in 2010.

Whether or not she can hold the top ranking, which has bounced around like a hot potato, is an open question. Suzann Pettersen, five times a runner-up in 2010, and coming off a T2 at the Canadian Open, is still aiming for her first W of the year.

No rookie has won on the LPGA this season. Spain's Azahara Munoz leads the race for Rookie of the Year, but Amanda Blumenherst isn't far behind.

The hottest player in the field will most likely be Michelle Wie, who is coming off her second LPGA victory, in Winnipeg two weeks ago.

The Nationwide tour stops at Willow Creek C.C. in Sandy, Utah, for the Utah Championship, the 22nd of 29 events this season.

The spotlight will be on Utah's Daniel Summerhays, the former BYU All-American who is still the only player to win a Nationwide event as an amateur (2007 Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational). He's 15th on this year's Nationwide money list; the top 25 at the end of the season advance to play the PGA Tour in 2011.

Martin Kaymer makes his first start since winning the PGA Championship at the KLM Open at Hilversumsche G.C. in The Netherlands.

The field will also include British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, plus 2010 European Ryder Cup team members Ross Fisher and Francesco Molinari.

Bernhard Langer goes for his sixth win of the year when the Champions Tour heads to Korea for the first time for the Posco E&C Songdo Championship.

The field will also include Mark Calcavecchia, who won a tournament in Seoul in 2004, U.S. Ryder Cup assistant Jeff Sluman, Tom Watson, Fred Funk and David Frost.

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