ATLANTA (AP) — A two-putt par to win the Tour Championship in a playoff was worth an extra $1.5 million to Camilo Villegas.
A 7-iron to a scary pin on the 71st hole, under more pressure than he has ever faced?
That was invaluable.
Villegas overcame a five-shot deficit with six birdies on his final 11 holes of regulation – the last one after going at a dangerous flag on the 17th – and won the Tour Championship on the first extra hole against Sergio Garcia for his second straight victory.
“Winning is awesome,” Villegas said after closing with a 4-under 66.
The 26-year-old Colombian, who had gone 85 starts on the PGA Tour without winning, picked up his second in a row with a finish that brought the gallery to life on a sunny afternoon at East Lake.
In a four-man race coming to the final holes, Villegas caught Garcia with a 7-iron from 184 yards to 12 feet on the 17th, then twice hit beautiful lag putts from 45 feet for par on the 233-yard 18th – once in regulation to finish at 7-under 273, then in the playoff to win.
“Probably the shot of the tournament there,” Villegas said. “There’s a great chance the ball is going to plug if it comes up short in that bunker, and a yard long and it’s in the water. So it’s just hit and beg. It happened to be just fine.”
Anthony Kim and Phil Mickelson each shot 69, and each had a chance to join the playoff. Kim, playing in the second-to-last group with Villegas, missed from 30 feet. In the final group, Mickelson missed his birdie putt from 20 feet.
Garcia, who blew a 54-hole lead of at least three shots for the third straight time, also had a 20-foot birdie putt to win in regulation. He didn’t give himself much of a chance in the playoff when his 4-iron came up 30 yards short and to the right. His flop shot over a bunker stayed in the collar of the green, and a chip to extend the playoff came up well short.
“I doubted myself too much early on, and it cost me,” said Garcia, who squandered a six-shot lead in 2005 at the Wachovia Championship and a three-shot lead last year in the British Open at Carnoustie.
The consolation prize might be the Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average. Garcia came into the Tour Championship trailing Mickelson by one-hundredth of a point, and wound up at 69.40. Mickelson finished at 69.42.
Tiger Woods, who had season-ending knee surgery after winning the U.S. Open, did not play the required 60 rounds to be eligible for the award, which will not be official until the tour’s Fall Series ends the first week of November.
“Fun way to finish the year, have it come down to the last shot,” Mickelson said.
What was supposed to be the highlight of the Tour Championship – the FedEx Cup – turned into an afterthought. Singh effectively wrapped up the $10 million prize two weeks ago in St. Louis, so all he had to do was finish 72 holes at East Lake and sign for the correct score to win the FedEx Cup.
“I made one birdie and one bogey. It was easy not to make a mistake,” he said.
Singh closed with a 70 and tied for 22nd in the 30-man field, but none of that mattered. He won the first two playoff events to take the drama out of the FedEx Cup for the second straight year.
Villegas missed the cut at The Barclays in the first round of the playoffs, which ultimately was the difference. He wound up 551 points behind in the standings, but that was only bookkeeping.
While the FedEx Cup suffered another dull finish, the Tour Championship was anything but that. Over the back nine, it turned out to be one of the best regular PGA Tour events of the year.
Mickelson, Garcia, Kim and Villegas – four of the hottest commodities on a tour without Woods – had at least a share of the lead along the back nine at East Lake. They were in the final two groups. At least one player made birdie or bogey on every hole except the 18th, which yielded only one birdie in the final round.
Villegas might have been the one player no one expected to be there.
He started the final round five shots out of the lead, and despite a pair of birdies, gave it all back and more with a tee shot into the water on the par-3 sixth, and a bogey on the next hole. That’s when he got his first pep talk from caddie Gary Matthews.
“My caddie looked at me straight in the eyes and he goes, ‘You ain’t going to give up on me. We can still do it.’ He was probably the only one believing that at that point,” Villegas said.
The Colombian fired off three straight birdies as the leaders showed signs of a struggle, and the game was on.
Garcia, also a playoff loser to Singh in The Barclays, failed to birdied the par-5 ninth from a greenside bunker, and didn’t make his first birdie until the 12th hole. Mickelson was reminded how much his putter has held him back, missing several chances inside 12 feet.
Kim was the most steady of the bunch, but after taking the outright lead with a 20-foot birdie on the 11th hole, the 23-year-old did not make another birdie the rest of the round.
Garcia steadied himself and was ahead by one shot until Villegas stood over his approach from the first cut of rough on the 17th hole, where the plan all week was to aim for the middle of the green. His caddie told him to take his chances with a 30-foot putt.
“Sometimes I’m a little stubborn,” Villegas said. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to jump a little bit or not, but when my caddie looked at me, he goes, ‘Trust it. It’s not going to jump.’ I changed my target, looked straight at the pin, and went at it.”
What a payoff it turned out to be.