Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods Prove Only Four Tournaments Matter in Golf

Atlanta is once again the host for the season-ending Tour Championship this week, which is either the PGA Tour's second biggest tournament of the year, after only the Players Championship in March, or its fifth biggest, after the Players and three World Golf Championship events.

Either way, the event's inflated purse (100K for last place, no cut) and exclusive field (top 30 on the money list) are not buying the credibility they're supposed to buy. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have opted out this week because, well, you know, it's a long season. The lucrative, heavily hyped FedEx Cup could get them back into the mix starting in 2007, but we'll see. Right now, the Tour is a non-entity as soon as the leaves start to change. Want to make more than a million bucks but keep your anonymity? Win on the PGA Tour in September or October. Better yet, just rack up a bunch of Top 10s and sneak away quietly.

The fall was a lifesaver for Troy Matteson, who won in Vegas and Top 10'd every other week to vault from 172nd to 36th in 2006 earnings, and earn a trip to Augusta. And K.J. Choi got his fourth win at the Chrysler Championship in Tampa, Florida, on Sunday.

But these are not men who get stopped for many autographs. You know your sport is in a down cycle, a R.E.M. cycle, when the biggest story is Jack Nicklaus dotting the "i" for the Ohio State marching band.

Tampa? There are as many "i"s in insignificant as there were TV viewers as Ernie Els tried to stay in the Top 30 in earnings and qualify for the Tour Championship. He did, with a pair of up-and-downs on his final two holes, but it spoke to the desperation of the star-lite, not very grand finale this week in Atlanta (or Mylanta, when Tour commish Tim Finchem found out Tiger wasn't coming).

A good indication of where golf ranks in the pro sports pecking order is ESPN News, and on Sunday evening, if a television viewer wanted to find out if Choi had hung on, he found golf stuck in a ticker traffic jam at the bottom of the screen. First there was the NFL, which was perfectly understandable. Then came NHL. Fine. Then MLS, in case anyone was pining for an update from the big Chivas USA vs. Houston tilt. I was not, but okay. Soccer is cool.

Then came BOXING, and news that police had made an arrest in the Trevor Berbick murder. No problem. If the ticker ever got to it, golf would be behind actual news. No shame in that.

But then came a cavalcade of insults, led by HORSE RACING (did something happen on the track?), BOWLING (spare me), NASCAR (of course) and NCAA FOOTBALL (and the new Associated Press poll). When those were followed by encores of NFL, NHL, MLS and BOXING, it seemed the golf news might have hit the cutting room floor in Bristol, Connecticut, but then a new word appeared: TENNIS. Rafael Nadal had pulled a stomach muscle. Poor guy.

And then there it was, right after some more tennis news: GOLF. Choi had won. Hurray. Now back to football. Perhaps it might have helped if a bigger name like Els had won, or if ESPN weren't about to take a long break from covering golf starting in 2007. It certainly would have kicked things up a notch if Mickelson and/or Woods had been at the Copperhead course at Innisbrook, but they can't even be bothered with the Tour Championship, which offers more money and is contested on a course both men play well. (Mickelson came from behind to beat Woods in one of the better Tour Championships in 2000.)

Cash means nothing to the game's marquee players. The FedEx Cup, a points race that is predicted to climax with a $10 million payout, will prove as much, maybe not next year, when every big name is expected to help get the thing airborne, but in '08. And then what? God forbid the game slide back into the malaise of late '06.

This October was memorable only for the goofy pictures (of Joe Durant with Mickey Mouse and Matteson wedged between two aging showgirls) and glib Paul Goydos, who avoided Q school with his T2 at Innisbrook and then confided to the tournament director that he'd planned to beg for a sponsor's invite in '07. Good times.

Even if he has to increase the minimum number of events, Finchem must entice Mickelson and Woods to show up, because watching golf now is like tuning into a Miami Heat game only to find out Shaq didn't feel like leaving the house. Mickelson is semi-retired. Woods is getting ready to play in China (HSBC Champions) next week, followed by Japan (Dunlop Phoenix) and Hawaii (for the Grand Slam of Golf), after which he will host his Target World Challenge in Sherman Oaks, California, Dec. 13-17.

Their void could not be more palpable. At this rate the Tour will never disprove the idea that big-time golf is about only four tournaments, a quartet of leave-it-all-on-the-course pressure cookers that, oh, by the way, Finchem has nothing to do with: the majors.

The FedEx Cup could help, or not. It's hard to trump reality, but the Tour thinks $10 million will "Trump" reality. We'll see if it's enough to entice Phil and Tiger to play in four straight events at the end of the year, when their natural inclination is to "recharge the batteries," as Woods might say after a tiring summer of chasing Jack's 18 majors. We'll see if it shakes Mickelson out of his late-season malaise, but the man clearly had nothing left in the tank for the Ryder Cup, in September.

Meanwhile the Tour's All-Star Game will be played not among the top 30 but the top 27 on the money list this week (Stephen Ames is out with a back injury). Barring something miraculous, Finchem's baby will be a meek ending to an otherwise noisy '06, or as another recently disillusioned sports boss said memorably, a sad failure.

Golf deserves better.