The Fall Series Has Been a Classic

The Fall Series Has Been a Classic

Weir, who caught Hensby on the final nine, ranked second in greens hit and in scrambling.
Fred Vuich

If an intrepid magazine writer journeys to Scottsdale, Ariz., searching for a deeper understanding of the Fall Series, the least likely place he expects to have a moment of clarity is in a men’s room at Grayhawk Golf Club, the site of last week’s Fry’s Electronics Open. But last Thursday your correspondent visited a water closet only to find himself at a sink next to Phil Mickelson, who was trying to scrub away the stench of an opening-round 71 that included numerous misadventures in the desert shrubbery.

“You must have pissed off somebody to get assigned to this,” Mickelson said with a wicked grin. “Did you get caught [sleeping with] your editor’s wife?”

Uh, no, but point taken.

To certain segments of the golf establishment — say, superstar players and self-important scribes — this inaugural Fall Series has long been considered akin to a seven-week staph infection, to be avoided at all costs. Mickelson made a cameo at the Fry’s only because of his intense loyalties to the Scottsdale golf community. He went to Arizona State and lived in the area for the first half of his pro career, and he has been a paid endorser of Grayhawk. In fact, over the years Mickelson has chewed so much scenery there that the clubhouse eatery is called Phil’s Grill, which also describes his performance at the Fry’s: Phil got grilled, missing the cut by a shot after two rounds (including a Friday 70) of giggle golf.

Mickelson’s brief, heavily hyped visit threw into sharp relief the general scarcity of star power that has been one prominent feature of the Fall Series. (His bathroom dig was also a not-so-subtle nod to the minimal media coverage.) With five tournaments now in the books, Mickelson is the only player in the top 10 of the World Ranking to have teed up during the Fall Series, and none were on hand at this week’s Ginn sur Mer Classic, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Tournament officials at the season-ending Children’s Miracle Network Classic, in Orlando on Nov. 1-4, are hoping a few big-name locals will feel compelled to get off their couches.)

“I think the Fall Series has been a success in a lot of ways,” says Joe Ogilvie, a member of the Tour’s policy board, “but it’s disappointing that the top guys haven’t played.”

Really, Joe? Did you honestly expect any of them to show up?

“Well, O.K., I thought Vijay [Singh] might play a few.”

If the FedEx Cup was conceived as a way to bring together golf’s best and brightest, then the Fall Series was for everybody else, a sort of fifth quarter designed for the Tour’s scrubs to fight for their playing privileges. (The post-FedEx Cup schedule was originally touted as the Chase for the Card before a calculated rebranding.)

But even without the biggest names, the Fall Series has not turned out to be as B-list as expected. On Sunday the Fry’s crowned a worthy winner in 2003 Masters champ Mike Weir. It was the eighth victory of his career and certainly one of the most meaningful, as it ended 3 1/2 years of frustration. Weir’s triumph continued the dominant story of this Fall Series, which has been the resurgence of front-line players. The first three tournaments were won by, in order, Steve Flesch (his second victory in eight weeks), Chad Campbell (a Ryder Cupper who has finished in the top 30 on the money list for four years running) and Justin Leonard (a former British Open and Players Championship victor). Leonard’s victory at the Texas Open should go down as one of the best tournaments of the season, fall or otherwise. The native Texan joined Arnold Palmer as the only three-time winner of the Texas Open, surviving a dogfight down the stretch with fan favorite Jesper Parnevik, who repeatedly escaped trouble with some outrageous shotmaking. Record crowds at the LaCantera Resort, in San Antonio, helped the tournament raise $8 million for charity, an amount that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem says is an alltime record. “Frankly, I’m not sure what more you can ask from a tournament,” says the commish.

The Fall Series got its first unknown winner two weeks ago in Las Vegas, where George McNeill broke through at the Open, but the 32-year-old former All-America at Florida State is hardly a fluke. McNeill has a rock-solid game, and even before his dominating four-stroke victory in Vegas he had proved his mettle at the end of 2006 by winning golf’s most harrowing tournament, the Q school.

Says the perpetually sunny Finchem, “What I’m hearing through word of mouth, through the blogs, is that the fans are enjoying getting to see some of the other players. A very small number of our players get 90 percent of the TV coverage, and they are obviously very important to the Tour. But there are other compelling stories out here, and it’s important for us to have those stories told.”

Golf Channel is televising every round of the Fall Series, offering a consistent platform (to use one of Finchem’s favorite words) and endless hucksterism. “We were on ESPN the last five years,” says Tony Piazzi, the tournament director of the Texas Open, “and the look and feel of the coverage has definitely been upgraded. ESPN has so much programming that, promotionally, golf never got the support we or the sponsor would have liked.”

The varied venues this fall have also offered pretty good theater, demanding more of the players than any of the cupcake courses that hosted the FedEx Cup’s so-called playoffs. Grayhawk is not a watery, risk-reward roller coaster like the crosstown TPC Scottsdale, site of February’s FBR Open, but rather a stout, straightforward test of the long game punctuated by some wild green complexes. The feel of the two Scottsdale tournaments also couldn’t be more different. The FBR is golf’s version of a toga party, regularly drawing 100,000 rowdy fans on a weekend day. A word used a lot last week was intimate, as if the players were talking about a darkened bistro. Because of Grayhawk’s rugged terrain, only 17,000 tickets were printed for each round, and the crowds were so sparse that fans could get close enough to hear the players hyperventilating.

The breathing was heavy because, despite the laid-back feel on the grounds, the Fry’s, like the other Fall Series events, is the backdrop to one of the most cutthroat rituals in sports, as players jostle to finish in the top 125 on the money list and thus keep their jobs for next season. Last week Alex Cejka may as well have had a giant bull’s-eye on his back, as he entered the tournament at number 125. “Oh, man, it’s stressful,” says Cejka, 36, who has finished 140th and 145th on the money list for the past two years. “I’m trying to just play golf, but it’s always there in the back of my mind.”

Cejka is an intense, fast-talking character, and he doesn’t try to hide how stomach-churning it is to play for your supper. He’s still haunted by one bad swing that occurred two months ago, on the 35th hole at the Barclays, the first of the FedEx Cup playoff events. He was in the middle of the fairway, 100 yards out, but a tentative approach shot led to a fatal bogey. “If I make par there, I make the cut and make enough money to earn a spot the next week in Boston,” Cejka says. “Then, who knows what happens? Maybe right now I have so much money in the bank that I’m at home on the couch playing with my dogs.”

Instead he had the rest of the FedEx Cup to prepare for the Fall Series. “It’s like the ultimate second chance,” Cejka says. “Going in, everyone knew he could save his year with a few good weeks.” Cejka is on the verge of doing exactly that. His tie for sixth at the Fry’s was the fourth straight week he has finished 30th or better, and he has now inched up to 110th on the money list.

If Cejka’s haggard visage was indicative of a certain kind of Fall Series competitor, Tim Clark’s scraggly beard symbolized something else entirely: the lucky players who had the luxury of treating the Fall Series as a working vacation. Of his scruff, Clark says, “I’ve been on holiday for a couple of weeks so I thought I’d keep it going.” Last month Clark had surgery to have nerves in his neck cauterized, and he is finally feeling healthy after a pain-filled year during which he nonetheless had five top seven finishes, which propelled him to 21st in the final FedEx Cup standings. “I’d love to get a victory and all that, but for me this is like spring training for next year. If anything good happens on the course, it’s simply a bonus,” says Clark, who received such a dividend at the Fry’s with an 18th-place finish worth $60,857.

During the Fall Series everyone has something different to play for. At 65th on the money list after his 27th-place finish in Scottsdale, Ogilvie is motivated to protect his position in the top 70, which confers a spot in next season’s limited-field invitationals such as Bay Hill and the Colonial. Others players are eyeing the top 30, which brings an exemption to all four of 2008’s major championships. “Trying to sneak into Augusta is the only reason I’m here,” says McNeill, who stood 59th at week’s end.

While the Fall Series is obviously good for the Tour’s middle class, it also makes sense for mid-level corporations trying to buy into the Tour, because TV rights fees are about 30% less for these tournaments than for those with network coverage on the weekends. However, this new competitive landscape has come with some uncertainties. The Tour is months behind schedule in releasing its slate of tournaments for 2008, and question marks surrounding the fall are part of the reason. Finchem says there will definitely be seven tournaments in next year’s Fall Series, and maybe even an eighth, but where they’ll be played is still being finessed. This week’s event in Port St. Lucie was supposed to be held in Fresno, Calif., but the proposed host course was never completed. The three brothers who control Fry’s Electronics had hoped to play their eponymous tournament at a vanity course they’ve built in Morgan Hill, Calif., but construction delays and messy local politics led to a one-year deal with Grayhawk. Last week various officials from Fry’s Electronics, the Tour and the tournament were mum on where the event will be played next season. “Nobody knows,” says Ogilvie, who is a clearinghouse for a lot of Tour gossip. “I’ve heard the Greenbrier, Kiawah, Oklahoma City. The latest rumor is that just this week they signed a two-year deal to keep it here at Grayhawk.” (No announcement had been made as SI went to press on Monday.)

Keeping the tournament in Scottsdale would certainly be popular with the many players who live nearby. Aaron Baddeley, Tom Lehman and Billy Mayfair were just three of the accomplished locals with no worries about job security who nonetheless turned out to support the event. Grayhawk is also the key to the continued participation of Mickelson, who despite his missed cut gave the tournament, and the Fall Series, more credibility. Says Finchem, “Here’s why Phil is important: The Tour brand may be getting stronger, but in today’s world the players are the Number 1 asset of the game. Phil’s showing up is helpful in getting fans to understand this is PGA Tour golf. It is important that the fall be recognized as PGA Tour golf.”

That already seems to be happening. There may even come a day when a reporter will be able to show up at a Fall Series event without being teased by Mickelson.