Camilo Villegas and friends turned the Tour Championship into a riveting glimpse of the future

Camilo Villegas and friends turned the Tour Championship into a riveting glimpse of the future

Villegas and Singh each won two of the four playoff events.
Fred Vuich

No one expected the season-ending Tour Championship to generate much excitement. After all, Vijay Singh had already clinched the FedEx Cup race three weeks before, at the BMW Championship in St. Louis. The only likely drama at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club would be whether Singh could somehow find a way to mess up a $10 million payday by missing a tee time, getting disqualified, forgetting to show up, hurting himself so he couldn’t finish or, I don’t know, getting struck by a rogue meteorite. Last Saturday a fan did get clocked in the skull by a rogue tee shot off the club of Anthony Kim, not an entirely dissimilar experience. Though bloodied and stitched, the man lived to tell the tale (although Kim admitted, “I thought I killed him”) and had the appropriate souvenirs, including a golf ball on which Kim wrote sorry. There were no meteorites at East Lake, but something unusual did happen. The Tour Championship, all by itself, provided the big, thrilling finish that the FedEx Cup playoffs couldn’t deliver. Mix the four most popular and compelling stars in the 30-man field — Kim, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Camilo Villegas — with a final round filled with birdies, lead changes, reversals, comebacks, charges and meltdowns, and you had one of the best shows of the year.

Kim and Mickelson missed lengthy, curving birdie putts on the final green and settled for a tie for third. Garcia and Villegas missed lengthy, curving birdie putts on the final green and, having each finished at seven under par, went back to the tee at the par-3 18th for a playoff. Garcia mishit a four-iron shot wide right of the green, then failed to get his flop shot onto the putting surface, allowing Villegas to two-putt for par and the win. Three weeks after the first victory of his career, at the BMW, Villegas returned from a brief visit to see friends and family in his home country of Colombia and scored his second. In the posttriumph glow he could have pondered this: Had he merely made the cut at the first playoff event, the Barclays — he failed by a stroke — the FedEx Cup Trophy and the $10 million would have been his.

What the Tour Championship and its FedEx Cup tie-in lacked in relevance, it made up for with cash. Told that he had a putt on the 72nd green for $4.26 million (the total he would’ve earned in tournament prize money and FedEx Cup bonus payout if he had finished first), a stunned Garcia asked, “Really?”

Yes, really. “Too bad,” he deadpanned, drawing laughter from reporters.

You might as well hand the Tour Championship the trophy for comeback of the year. For a tournament that wasn’t supposed to end well, it could hardly have turned out better. Three young guns, the future of the game, versus 38-year-old Mickelson, in a new role as Methuselah. “I am the old guy now, I know,” Mickelson said after he came up short. “I noticed it at the Ryder Cup. That was my seventh Ryder Cup. I did feel like the old dude.”

Mickelson and the youngsters helped bail out a troubled FedEx Cup season. First, there was Tiger Woods, or the lack thereof. He had knee surgery after he won the U.S. Open and was out for the year, taking just about every ounce of buzz and Nielsen points with him. Then came the Olympics, which overshadowed everything in August. Then came the selection of the Ryder Cup teams, followed two weeks ago by the Cup itself.

In a failed experiment the four FedEx Cup events were broken up on the schedule. The first three were played on consecutive weeks, followed by a week off, then the Ryder Cup and then the Tour Championship. Failed experiment? Yes — most of the players from the winning U.S. side were draggin’ their wagons after the matches in Louisville. One of the heroes at Valhalla, Kentucky native Kenny Perry, shot 10 over par in Atlanta, as did Stewart Cink and Steve Stricker.

Perry had gone home to Franklin, Ky., for a day, then got up on Tuesday and drove to East Lake. “That was a depressing drive,” Perry said. “This is a great tournament, but it’s bad timing. Playing before my home folks last week in the Ryder Cup was the ultimate. It was hard for me to get motivated for this. It’s like winning the Super Bowl on Sunday, and then you have to play the Pro Bowl the next day. Coming here ruined the greatest week in my life. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to go home and celebrate.” (Perry and Stricker were also less than thrilled to receive pink slips — notices that they were among those selected for random drug testing — at East Lake.)

Most Ryder Cuppers had similar letdowns. Mickelson and Kim shared third place at six under par, but the other eight U.S. players in the field were a combined 45 over.

Stricker, who lives in Madison, Wis., returned home for a quiet two days that he spent fielding e-mail and text messages, including one from Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who invited Stricker to appear on the field at this Saturday night’s Ohio State-Wisconsin game at Camp Randall Stadium. Stricker said it will be “pretty cool” if he has something to do with the pregame coin flip.

While some of his teammates sagged, Kim, 23, soared. He opened with a 64 and led by two shots after a one-under 69 in the second round. Off the course he continued to win over fans with his enthusiasm and sense of humor. For example, he said he needed a couple of days to recover from the U.S. team’s Sunday-night victory celebration. Why? “I did a lot of reading that night,” he said. “My eyes were tired.”

Kim was paired with Garcia in the final twosome for last Saturday’s round, a rematch of their Ryder Cup singles showdown, handily won by Kim, 5 and 4. The encore saw a reversal. Garcia would’ve won 4 and 2 if they had been playing a match. Kim could only laugh at how badly his day went. He mistakenly thought his tee time was 11:55 a.m. when it was actually 30 minutes earlier. By the time he realized his mistake (after noticing that the locker room had cleared), Kim had only a half hour to warm up — and he hit the ball terribly on the range. “I don’t know anyone who could have fixed that swing,” he said.

The low point may have been the par-4 16th, where Kim blocked his tee shot way right, but it caromed back into the right rough. He pulled the next shot way left, drilling a set of luxury suites. This ball caromed back into the left rough, and from there he fluffed a flop shot into a greenside bunker, getting up and down for bogey. He wound up shooting a 72 to Garcia’s 67. That set up Sunday’s thrill ride. Garcia was in the final pairing with Mickelson, and Kim was next-to-last with Villegas. Garcia had a three-stroke lead over Kim and Mickelson, and a five-shot edge on Villegas.

Villegas made an early move, then hooked a five-iron into the water at the par-3 6th and bogeyed the 7th. “Don’t quit on me; you can do it,” Villegas’s caddie, Gary Mathews, told his man. Villegas birdied five of the next six holes. “It was crazy out there, man,” Villegas said.

While Garcia struggled with his swing and his putting, Kim opened a two-shot lead that vanished as quickly as it appeared. Mickelson got a share of the lead with two birdies on the back but bogeyed the 16th after driving into the left trees. A four-man playoff loomed as a possibility before Villegas boldly went for the pin at the 453-yard 17th, where water lurked just a few steps behind the green, and pulled it off, then holed a 12-footer for the birdie 3. “That was the shot of the tournament,” Villegas said of his seven-iron approach.

In the end, the Tour Championship felt like a changing of the guard. The 2008 season was supposed to fade to irrelevance with Woods on the sideline. Instead, one player after another stepped up in his absence. First it was Padraig Harrington, who parlayed brilliant final nines into British Open and PGA Championship titles. Then it was Singh, who convinced himself he was a good putter and suddenly won three times, including two FedEx Cup events.

At the Ryder Cup, U.S. fans were dazzled by the likes of Kim and Hunter Mahan and Boo Weekley. Garcia played well all year, winning the Players Championship and taking tough losses at the PGA, the Barclays and last week to his friend, the still-improving Villegas, who has established himself as a top 10 talent.

Instead of an uninspired, 30-man outing, the Tour Championship turned into an exciting glimpse of the game’s future. The start of the ’09 season is three months away, and we probably won’t see Tiger play for seven, until the Masters. But we can’t wait.