Over the last two seasons the easiest shot in golf has been any directed at the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour’s extravagant new invention that sportswriters love to hate. Agreed, the eight months of hype leading up to last year’s inaugural FedEx playoffs was more than a little over the top, but the quartet of tournaments delivered, among other things, an epic Tiger-Phil shootout, won by Mickelson, and two vintage Woods blowouts that sealed the first FedEx title. With Woods on the disabled list this year, many in the golf literati had declared this year’s Cup over before it even began, but those obits turned out to have been premature. The second Cup has, thankfully, come with a more muted preamble, but it has the potential to provide even better theater, thanks to a retooled points system and some riveting Ryder Cup subplots.
The action during last week’s lid-lifting Barclays at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., wasn’t too shabby either, featuring a bang-bang finish between two of the best players in the game, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh. Each birdied the 71st hole to propel himself into a three-man playoff. On the first extra hole they traded birdie bombs, Singh’s 26-footer coming moments after Garcia’s 27-footer had tumbled into the hole. It was a stunning display from two famously dysfunctional putters. The giddy fun ended on the next hole when Singh closed out his 33rd career victory with two mighty blows on the 594-yard par-5 17th. The walk-off two-putt birdie put Singh atop the FedEx Cup standings, while the star-crossed Garcia moved from 12th to second. (The playoff’s forgotten man, Kevin Sutherland, bowed out on the first extra hole but still zoomed from 57th to third.)
Singh has never been one to look down on any of the victories in his Hall of Fame career. While other stars increasingly consolidate their schedules around the short list of big-time events, he has rolled up wins everywhere from Disney to John Deere to the 84 Lumber Classic. (To be fair, he has also won three majors and 22 international events.) So while someone like Woods doesn’t even pretend to care about the FedEx Cup — he famously refused to kiss the victor’s trophy last year, despite the beseeching of Tour commissioner Tim Finchem — Singh was positively ebullient (at least for him) to be in a position to win his first.
“Everybody who is playing the FedEx Cup wants to win [it],” said Singh. “I have to go out there and do it. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Singh’s late-game birdie binge was hardly the week’s only memorable outcome. At the outset of last year’s playoffs only 13 of the 144 players had a realistic shot of winning the FedEx Cup, a rich-get-richer scenario that sucked most of the intrigue out of the weekly field reductions: to 120 for the Deutsche Bank Championship, then to 70 for the BMW and finally to 30 for the Tour Championship. Sharp criticism in the media and among players helped persuade the Tour to make changes, so this time around the points distribution was tweaked — to borrow one of last week’s most overused verbs — in hopes of creating more volatility, to cite the other buzzword du jour. Rain Man would have trouble keeping track of all the numbers, but the bottom line is that players were more tightly bunched for the postseason reset, and the weekly allotments of points have been increased, meaning players will be flying up and down the standings with dizzying uncertainty.
One upshot is that making the cut at Ridgewood became vital, creating on Friday the survive-and-advance mentality that characterizes the early rounds of March Madness. Last year, among the players ranked 121-144 entering the Barclays, only two played their way into the Deutsche Bank. This year 15 clawed their way into this week’s second round. Among them was Glen Day, the amiable veteran with a Southern drawl as thick as U.S. Open rough. He came into the Barclays 143rd in points, and on Friday made four birdies on the front nine to offset four bogeys on the back, scratching out an even-par 71 to make the cut by three strokes. Day went on to finish 24th and move to 111th in the FedEx standings. “Nobody really understands how the numbers work,” says Day, “but the math gets a whole lot easier if you make a bunch of birdies.”
Martin Laird is proof of that. The 25-year-old rookie by way of Scotland has already emerged as the FedEx Cup’s biggest Cinderella story. In Laird’s first 17 tournaments this year he missed the cut seven times and failed to finish better than 22nd. “I had no idea where the ball was going,” says Laird. “I had no idea where I was going. I was seriously wondering what I was doing out here.” Some hard work with his coach, Steve Dahlby, and an ensuing tie for fourth in Reno gave Laird a shot of confidence, but he still headed to the, quote unquote, regular-season finale, the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, a distant 182nd in the FedEx standings. A second-round 74 there seemed to push the playoffs out of reach, but he rebounded with a 64 on Saturday and during the final round birdied three of the first four holes. On the par-5 5th hole at Sedgefield Country Club he lost his drive to the right and feared his ball was out-of-bounds. It wound up staying in by a few yards, and from there Laird ripped a four-iron to 10 feet. Instead of a 7 he made a 3, keying a closing 63 that propelled him to the Barclays, which he began at 128th on the points list. With rounds of 70-69-72-67 at Ridgewood, he finished at four under and in a tie for seventh, surging to 67th in the standings.
Does Laird think he can ride this hot streak all the way to the $10 million bonus lavished upon the FedEx Cup winner? “Why not?” he says. “Every week is its own opportunity now.”
That’s only partially true for the players still fighting for spots on both Ryder Cup teams. As the culmination to the Deutsche Bank, both teams will be finalized when Europe’s Nick Faldo announces his captain’s selections on Sunday night and the U.S.’s Paul Azinger follows suit two days later. Along with Ian Poulter and a resurgent Darren Clarke, Paul Casey is a prime candidate for one of Faldo’s two picks, and Casey certainly didn’t hurt himself by tying for seventh at the Barclays. When he wasn’t fretting about his own fortunes, he took time out to check on his would-be antagonists. “You know, I’m actually just as interested in the U.S. team,” Casey says. “It’s very intriguing. It might affect me, it might not, but either way I have an interest in it.”
Two players in the mix to be among Azinger’s four captain’s selections were headliners early in the week at the Barclays. Hunter Mahan opened with a 62, and the next day Steve Stricker shot a 64 to wrest the lead from Mahan. Both failed to build on their stellar rounds, with Mahan doing a slow fade and Stricker imploding spectacularly, going seven over par in an eight-hole stretch during the third round. No doubt Cap’n Zinger was especially attuned to Sunday’s 12:15 pairing as the golf gods put Mahan with Stricker. Mahan was aware of the opportunity the audition presented. “I thought it was funny that Steve and I were in this predicament together,” he said. Their round featured a collegial vibe but only so-so golf, as Stricker shot 71 to Mahan’s 73. Had it been match play Stricker would have won 1 up. “I thought we would’ve played a little better because we both know what’s at stake,” said Mahan, who finished 31st, 12 slots behind Stricker.
By the time the leaders made the turn on Sunday all the other subplots had played out and the focus became the ferocious back-nine dogfight, which at various points featured seven players within a stroke of the lead. Garcia, still trying to shake off the disappointment of his Sunday slip at the PGA Championship, had the lead until bogeying the 70th hole, at which point Singh showed again why he’s one of the most merciless closers in the game. It was a rousing finish to an eventful week, but what’s really exciting is that this FedEx Cup race is just getting started.