Tiger Woods is in command as FedEx Cup Playoffs get down to final 30

Tuesday September 15th, 2009
Following a nine-under 62 on Saturday, Woods strolled to his fifth BMW win and 71st overall on Sunday.
David Walberg/SI

The final nine holes of the BMW Championship were a nail-biting, nerve-jangling thriller, and it had absolutely nothing to do with Tiger Woods. While Woods was rolling to his overwhelming eight-stroke victory, various tournaments within the tournament were playing out across Cog Hill Golf and Country Club, in Lemont, Ill. On Sunday afternoon Jerry Kelly was hunched over the lone scoring computer in the cramped locker room staring at the screen while dribbling into a plastic bottle the dark, viscous by-product of his chewing tobacco. Kelly had started the week 24th in FedEx Cup points, but a weak performance at the BMW had sent him inching down the standings. Now, as he studied the all-important, up-to-the-minute projections, he found himself precariously in 29th place, with a handful of players still on the course who could bump him out of the top 30 and thus out of next week's Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, the final of the four playoff events. One of the would-be party poopers was Ian Poulter, sitting in 31st place as Kelly scanned the standings. "Hmmm, Poulty birdied 15," Kelly murmured. Time to reach for a voodoo doll? "I'm thinking something stronger," Kelly said, and then he put a stranglehold on two Coronas.

Poulter parred 16 and 17, setting up a do-or-die 18th. From the left primary cut of rough he had 177 yards to a hole cut on the left edge of a green fronted by water. Knowing that he needed birdie — the on-course scoreboards incessantly flashed the ever-changing points projections — Poulter fired at the flag but came up short, his ball splashing into the hazard with a sickening finality. Moments later Poulter stomped into the locker room. With his travel bag lying helplessly on the floor, he wound up and kicked it with impressive violence. The room fell silent. When Poulter huffed out the door not 30 seconds later, one of the locker-room attendants cracked up the assembled onlookers by saying, "That was about a 40-yard field goal."

Welcome to the pressure-packed FedEx Cup, version 3.0. When Woods shot a masterly third-round 62 to take a seven-stroke lead, he rendered his final round strictly ceremonial. With his 71st career victory assured, Woods ceded the stage to the bubble boys, and watching them play for their livelihoods was a largely excruciating exercise. Money, not points, is really what the FedEx Cup is all about. The no-cut Tour Championship has a $7.5 million purse — last place is worth $120,000 — plus another $35 million in bonus money. Every player in the field is exempted into the first three majors of next year and the cut-free, big-money World Golf Championship at Doral. These invites are priceless to a youngster like Marc Leishman, an amiable Australian who was the week's biggest mover, surging from 67th to 16th thanks to his joint runner-up finish at Cog Hill, which was built on stellar bogeyless first and fourth rounds. "It was an awesome day for me," the 25-year-old Leishman said on Sunday. "To know I'm in the Tour Championship now and the Masters, you know, it's pretty hard to wipe the smile off my face."

As soon as the final putt dropped, the Cup's much-discussed new wrinkle was enacted, a reset of points to bunch up the players in Atlanta. Yes, the reset is contrived and confusing, but also crafty and effective. Woods now starts with 2,500 points, followed by Steve Stricker (2,250), Jim Furyk (2,000), Zach Johnson (1,800) and Heath Slocum (1,600). With 2,500 points going to the Tour Championship winner and 1,500 to the runner-up, if anyone in the top five wins he automatically takes the FedEx Cup and a cool $10 million. If Woods finishes 29th, every other player in the field has a mathematical chance to steal the Cup. For all the critiques of the reset, the bottom line is that there is now suspense heading into Atlanta, something that was missing at the top of the leader board at the BMW.

Woods's mastery can be riveting even as he drains the drama from the proceedings. He had put himself into a tie for the lead through two rounds with the kind of steady, consistent golf he rode to a Tour-best five victories coming in. Then, on Saturday, Tiger went absolutely bonkers. Beginning on his third hole Woods reeled off eight birdies and an eagle, shredding a renovated Cog Hill that was trying to audition for a U.S. Open, to say nothing of the 2016 Olympics.

Woods's seven-stroke cushion also evoked memories of the golden summer of 2000, when he won the U.S. Open by 15 strokes, the British Open by eight and the NEC Invitational by 11. But following his third round at Cog Hill, Woods dismissed those famous blowouts as the recklessness of youth. "I almost had to play aggressively because I didn't really have too many shots to work with," he said. "I didn't have the ability to change my trajectories like I do now, change the shapes and change the spins."

The hallmark of Woods's more mature game is consistency. Throw out the quirky Accenture Match Play, and he has been worse than 11th only once this year. His Tour-leading scoring average of 68.06 is now an astonishing 1.26 strokes a round better than the next guy, Stricker. "To be that far ahead in the Vardon Trophy [race] means that, one, you've been consistent and, two, you don't dog it," says Woods.

Yet Tiger was not the featured attraction playing the final hole on Sunday, as his victory stroll was overshadowed by the gripping two-man melodrama involving his playing partner Brandt Snedeker and John Senden in the group ahead. Senden came into the week 29th in points and seemed to have locked up his spot at the Tour Championship with a third-round 66. But he came undone on Sunday, bogeying five of the first 12 holes and then on 17 hitting his second shot "sideways" into a hazard to make a double. When he came off the 18th hole, Senden was sitting in 31st place and nearly disconsolate.

A projected 28th in points playing the 72nd hole, Snedeker needed only a bogey to secure his trip to Atlanta, and he knew it, having asked a reporter for an update. After an errant drive Snedeker laid up and then hit a credible wedge to 13 feet. His very fast downhill par putt raced three feet by. Here Snedeker picks up the tale: "I started thinking about the wrong things, man. I didn't concentrate over the bogey putt and was thinking about all the stuff the Tour Championship comes with, and I did everything you're not supposed to do. I yipped it. It was a full-out yip." In a final, cruel twist, Snedeker missed the ensuing one-footer, four-putting for a very expensive triple bogey.

Senden, meanwhile, was unaware of the train wreck until his caddie ran up and yelled, "I think you're in!"

"It's ridiculous. Ridiculous," said a shell-shocked Senden, who expressed no joy, merely relief.

In Atlanta, Senden and 29 others will start anew. Snedeker has a longer wait. "I'll work on it and be back next year," he said.

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