Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Around this time each year the golf world is treated to an unusual event, a competition where many players become one in a compelling, Darwinian bake-off.

That event is the U.S. Amateur, which is being played at Pinehurst, N.C., this week.

The PGA Tour would argue that the must-see golf is the FedEx Cup playoffs, which began with 135 players competing at the Barclays at Ridgewood C.C. on Thursday. So begins a four-tournament stretch that will feature smaller and smaller fields (Deutsche Bank, 120 players; BMW, 70; Tour Championship, 30), and will ultimately crown a champion based on a running point total. That man will take home $9 million, with $1 million deferred.

Yawn.

Monopoly money is a nice incentive for the players, but it's hard to find anyone else atwitter over "the playoff thing," as Paul Azinger called it last month.

I'll take the Amateur this week, for several reasons.

The FedEx Cup is redundant. After 33 tournaments this year, including four majors and three WGC events, we've identified the top players. We know what happens if Sergio Garcia plays Padraig Harrington, and we know that Kenny Perry has had a nice season and could win again.

We understand that Steve Stricker hasn't done much in '08, and that Phil is still Phil, meaning no one knows what he'll do next, including him. The relatively new twist is we no longer care, unless that includes winning. Please, Phil, no more spin about how you're turning 64s into 69s.

The U.S. Am is a novelty, a gathering of fantastic players we haven't seen a million times before. Ron Howard's red-headed kid Reed made the field at Pinehurst but shot 74-75 and failed to advance out of stroke play. Mike Van Sickle, son of SI's Gary, just missed the match play rounds. Kevin Tway, son of Bob, won his first match Wednesday. Sam Saunders, Arnie's grandson, did not. Me, I'm cheering for 52-year-old Brady Exber of Las Vegas, who beat 19-year-old Josh Anderson in round one. Maybe I'm not over the hill after all. (Please, no e-mails.)

Jack Nicklaus won his first U.S. Amateur half a century ago next year, but he vividly remembered the match when I asked him about it last week. He was playing Charlie Coe at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, and they were all square when Jack hit 9-iron to the final green. Left with an eight-foot putt to win, he of course made it.

"It probably did more to propel my career than any single shot or single thing," Nicklaus said. "Because if I had missed that putt and lost that match, it would have always been in my mind. If I had missed that putt I may be retired and collecting Social Security today."

Just as money is not the issue at the Amateur, the FedEx playoffs tell us it's not an issue for some of the top pros, either.

Lee Westwood opted out of the FedEx opener, choosing a vacation instead. Justin Rose is playing the KLM Open because it's his best bet to crack Europe's Ryder Cup roster, which pays nothing. Yes, I know about bigger endorsement deals for Ryder Cup stars. Spare me.

The FedEx Cup is stuck in a major end-of-season traffic jam. All of the individual events anyone cares about are over. In fact, judging from the breathless, parking lot stakeouts of Brett Favre, the press and public tuned out the Tiger-less Tour even during the year's final major. Paddy's PGA was no match for Brett's SUV.

And still the FedEx soldiers on despite the Olympics and an upcoming two-week break after the BMW Championship, necessitated by the Ryder Cup. Ultimately only 30 players will convene for the FedEx finale, the Tour Championship at East Lake outside Atlanta, because the smaller the field, the more "exclusive" (important) it is.

That's the idea, anyway. In reality a limited field holds limited appeal because it increases the likelihood that one hot player will run away with the tournament. It happened last year with Woods, but a mere mortal also could run away and hide with only 29 other guys chasing him. (A total of 315 players started the U.S. Amateur on Monday.)

Perhaps the FedEx champion won't be determined until the back nine on Sunday of the Tour Championship. That would be nice, but the rules are complicated. The Tour has arbitrarily narrowed the gap between players to start the playoffs, from 1,000 to 500 points. Every player who makes the cut at the Barclays will get 2,000 more points than he would have last year. This is meant to create more volatility up and down the standings.

The Amateur is simple. Two guys go into a match, and only one lives to play another day, sometimes after a wild momentum swing or five, which is typical of match play.

The FedEx Cup is a flawless piece of hardware and has one name on it. Key subplots include Harrington's bid to win the money title on both sides of the Atlantic in 2008, and who will drive Ridgewood's 297-yard, par-4 fifth hole this week.

The Amateur trophy has character, tiny scratches and smudges that date to 1895. Key subplots include who will drive up Magnolia Lane next April, earning entry into the Masters (and U.S. and British Opens). You can't overstate the significance of that; the USGA doesn't try.

Meanwhile the FedEx Cup remains a play for relevance via monetization and marketing, which looks especially silly every other year, when top players are more concerned about playing for God and country at the Ryder Cup.

You've got to hand it to the Tour, really. After all the hype, it's created something that only Rich Beem cares about.

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