ATLANTA (AP) – Steve Stricker ran into PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem outside the East Lake clubhouse Tuesday morning and already was worried about having to give a speech that night to receive the Payne Stewart Award.
“Can we just do a Q & A?'' Stricker said. “I don't know if I can make it through without crying.''
He couldn't even make it through a news conference without shedding a few tears.
Stricker laughs at himself for crying after just about every win, though his emotions were heartfelt when he was announced as the winner. The award was created after Stewart, a three-time major champion, perished in a freak plane crash over South Dakota in 1999 during the week of the Tour Championship.
The award is presented to a player who shows respect for the traditions of the game, is geared toward charity and presents himself in a professional manner through dress and conduct. Stricker did not spend a lot of time with Stewart, though he felt a connection because both of them returned from tough times.
Stricker was a rookie in 1994 when Stewart was going through a tough year. They were paired together, and Stricker remembers watching the former U.S. Open champion struggle with his game.
“I was able to see firsthand how the guy struggled, and how he rededicated and refocused and got all his priorities right, how a guy like that was able to come back and how to do it,'' Stricker said. “I actually thought about him quite a bit when I went through my own struggles. So it's ironic in some ways that I was able to see that in Payne in `94, but then apply it to myself during my struggles in the mid-2000s.''
Stricker lost his card, then worked his way back by hitting balls from a three-sided trailer onto a snow-covered practice range in Wisconsin. He came from so far back that he made PGA Tour history as the only player to be voted comeback player of the year – two seasons in a row. Nine of his 12 career wins came in the past six years.
As for holding his emotions in check? No chance.
He thanked Finchem and the Southern Company, which sponsors the award, and his voice first cracked two words into his opening remarks at a news conference.
“It's very humbling and an honor that I never thought would be possible,'' he said. “I'm very fortunate, very blessed to be a part of this. I'm really blown away that I'm ever here, so I appreciate it, and I'm not really looking forward to tonight because I have to get up there and give a talk, and I'm struggling already.''
Stricker broke down again when he talked about Finchem calling him this summer to tell him he had won the award.
“I don't know why I have these emotions, but it means a lot,'' he said. “It really does.''
EARNING A CARD: The road to a PGA Tour card will go through Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio – and a fourth tournament still to be determined.
The PGA Tour announced three new tournaments that will make up the “Web.com Tour Final,'' a series of four events that effectively replaces the old Q-school and will determine which 50 players get full tour cards for the following season.
The fields will be comprised of the top 75 players from the Web.com Tour money list, the players who fail to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs (Nos. 126-200 on the points list) and nonmembers who would have earned enough FedEx Cup points to place them between Nos. 126-200.
Each of the four “Finals'' events will have a $1 million purse, with the cut made at top 60 and ties.
The Finals will start Aug. 29 with the Hotel Fitness Championship at Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Ind. The next week will be the Chiquita Classic at The Club at Longview outside Charlotte, N.C., followed by the Nationwide Children's Hospital Championship on the Scarlet Course at Ohio State.
The original plan was for three tournaments, but the tour added another tournament to the Finals. That event has not been determined, though it would be played Sept. 26-29, giving the players a one-week break before the last tournament.
All players start from scratch in the Finals, though the top 25 from the Web.com Tour regular season will be assured of getting their cards. The next 25 on the list also will get cards. The separate money list from the Finals will determine the pecking order to get into tournaments in the 2013-14 season that begins in October.
The tour said the leading money winner from the Web.com Tour regular season, and the leading money winner from the Finals, will be assured of getting in every regular tournament the following year, including The Players Championship.
The idea behind adding a fourth tournament was to bring out the most consistent players.
“With the introduction of this new qualifying process and four Finals events in 2013, the Web.com Tour is about to embark on the most exciting era in its 23-year history,'' Finchem said.
The final event would be held a week after the Tour Championship. The new season would start two weeks later.
As for Q-school? That will continue, though only Web.com Tour cards will be awarded.
EAST LAKE PERKS: Reaching the Tour Championship is such a big deal that several players were mistaken about the perks. Ryan Moore was only the latest when he mentioned “getting in the World Golf Championships.''
It only guarantees the Cadillac Championship at Doral. Players have to be among the top 64 in the world next February to get into the Match Play Championship, and they have to win a tournament (depending on its field strength), be in the top 50 or make the Ryder Cup team to play at the Bridgestone Invitational.
They are exempt to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open – but not the PGA Championship, although it's rare that a player at East Lake does not make it into the final major a year later. Players also get in Bay Hill, Colonial, Memorial, AT&T National, along with the CIMB Classic in Malaysia.
DIVOTS: The Volvo Golf Champions on the European Tour will move to its third golf course next year when it goes to Durban Country Club in South Africa. It started in 2011 in Bahrain, and was played this year at Fancourt in South Africa. … NBC Sports plans to use Colin Montgomerie as an analyst during the Ryder Cup. Montgomerie, who never lost a singles match, was Europe's captain when it won in Wales in 2010. … Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan are the only players who have competed in every FedEx Cup playoff event since it began in 2007.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Seventeen of the 30 players at the Tour Championship will compete in the Ryder Cup next week.
FINAL WORD: “We got him started playing golf, which was a benefit to a lot of the golfing world because he wasn't a good gambler starting off.'' – Davis Love III on Michael Jordan.