Who Else?

Tiger Woods finished at 23 under par.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The inaugural FedEx Cup ended last week, but you have to go back another 52 weeks to understand how much the Cup has changed the landscape of the PGA Tour. This time last year the Tour was slogging through something called the 84 Lumber Classic, in the wilds of western Pennsylvania, with a $4.6 million purse and a field that had no Tiger or Phil (or for that matter, no Padraig, no Ernie, no Sergio, no Furyk). Two more forgettable months would pass until the Tour Championship, the ostensible season-ender that turned out to be such a nonevent that both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson blew it off, which for Mickelson was the second consecutive season he couldn’t be bothered to show.

To add sizzle, the new format was born, accompanied by an endless barrage of ads, relentless second-guessing and a mounting number of points and pouts from the players. Now, the FedEx Cup is finally in the books. The verdict? It delivered.

On Sunday afternoon at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Woods won the Tour Championship with another classic performance, blowing away the field by eight strokes. Along the way he clinched the top spot in the four-week playoff and thus took home the Cup. In the run-up to the playoffs it was hard to gauge Woods’s enthusiasm, but the bottom line is that he brought his A-plus game to the tournaments at which he appeared. After granting himself a bye for the first of the four events, the Barclays, he roared back with two dominating wins and a second place that was just as memorable, as he lost a riveting final-round shootout to Mickelson at the second playoff tournament, the Deutsche Bank. Thanks to the Tiger and Phil Show — and the feel-good reemergence of the nicest guy in golf, Steve Stricker, victor at the Barclays — this first Cup will be remembered not for its clunky points system or the low roar of complaints from spoiled players but for star power and birdie binges.

“I think, overall, the FedEx was a success,” said Woods, whose four-round total of 257 (23 under par) at East Lake was the third-lowest in Tour history and a tournament record by six strokes. “I think there needs to be some tweaks, but overall it provided a lot of drama toward the end of the season, especially post-PGA when most of the guys [used to] shut it down.”

Woods’s 61st career victory moved him within one of Arnold Palmer on the alltime list. (Palmer was 44 and had played upward of 450 tournaments when he won number 62; Woods is 31 and has played 216 events.) His $11.26 million payday — $1.26 million from the Tour Championship purse, $10 million in FedEx Cup bonus money deposited tax-free into his retirement account — nudged him that much closer to becoming the first billionaire athlete in any sport. More important, the Tour Championship put an exclamation point on one of the most breathtaking stretches of Woods’s incomparable career, a period in which he has won four of five starts while going a total of 75 under par.

The run began last month with an eight-stroke victory at the Bridgestone Invitational, which was followed by a win at the PGA Championship, during which he shot a 63 to tie the lowest score in major-championship history. Two weeks ago Woods dropped another 63 to blow the doors off the competition during the final round of the BMW Championship, the third of the playoff events. With that victory he surged to the top of the point standings, at 112,733. Stricker was second, with 109,600 points, while Mickelson was one notch back at 108,613. With 50,000 points up for grabs at the 30-man Tour Championship, including 10,300 to the winner, it was essentially a three-horse race for the overall prize. (Rory Sabbatini and K.J. Choi were mathematically alive but only if Woods finished worse than 13th or, in Choi’s case, 21st. Even they knew they had no shot.)

If the Tour Championship was being likened to the Super Bowl by hyperbolic PGA Tour officials, the playing conditions were equivalent to a sandlot. Record heat in the Atlanta area had all but killed off East Lake’s bentgrass greens, and panicked tournament brass canceled the pro-am and restricted practice-round play in an effort to nurse the greens back to health. By game time the bumpy putting surfaces were actually perfect for the pros: O.K. enough to make putts on, but suspect enough that any miss could be blamed on a spike mark, whether it existed or not. The real problems with East Lake’s greens were their softness — even four-iron shots were plugging — and that the frayed edges forced the holes to be cut in the unprotected center of most surfaces. Woods called the setup of the 7,154-yard par-70 the easiest he’s played in his pro career, and he wasted little time sinking his claws into East Lake, birdieing his first three holes en route to an opening 64, which left him two back of Tim Clark, whose 62 was a new course record that would last all of two days, until Zach Johnson hung up a 60. The tournament — and the FedEx Cup — was more or less decided during the front nine of Woods’s second round, when he followed five consecutive birdies with a 70-foot putt for eagle on the 9th hole to shoot a 28, the lowest nine-hole score of his Tour career. Afterward his playing partner, Stricker, sounded as if he were suffering from posttraumatic stress syndrome.

“I mean, what can you do?” Stricker mumbled. “I have it inside of him a couple times, and I walk off with par and he makes a birdie… It was unbelievable after a while, what he was doing. On number 5” — where Woods hit his worst shot of the day only to follow it with a yo-mama slam dunk of a sand shot — “it actually looks as if he’s going to make a bogey. I’ve got 15 feet for birdie, and now all of a sudden he makes birdie and I make par. You sit back and think to yourself, How does that happen? It gets to you after a while.”

Woods’s 63 propelled him into the lead by three strokes over Woody Austin, and Tiger was unrelenting on the weekend while his would-be competitors fell away. On Saturday, Woods’s 64 kept him three up on the field and 13 strokes ahead of Mickelson and 16 up on Stricker. The chase for the Cup was all but over, and it came and went without a defining moment or singularly memorable shot. “I wish I had made it a little more exciting,” was all Mickelson could say.

Was it a letdown for Woods to have so easily taken the ballyhooed FedEx Cup title? “I’m sure Tiger doesn’t feel that way,” Mickelson said.

Woods tidied things up on Sunday with a monotonous 66. By then, most of the other players were already looking ahead to next year. Stricker was hoping Woods would continue his benevolent absenteeism. “Tiger taking the [first] week off allowed me to get up in there,” said Stricker, who earned a $3 million bonus for finishing second in the playoffs. “Too bad he didn’t take a second one off, really.”

That could conceivably come to pass in 2008, when the Ryder Cup begins five days after the FedEx Cup concludes. Woods and Mickelson took some heat for each skipping a tournament (Lefty passed up the BMW), but these unscheduled weeks off are destined to become part of the fabric of the Cup. If any mere mortal wants to keep up with Woods, he’ll probably have to power through all four events, regardless of the accumulating mental strain. “I was getting to the end of my rope,” Stricker said on Sunday. But shouldn’t a series of tournaments designed to identify the best player push all of them to the limit, or close to it?

These guys are certainly being compensated well enough. Over four weeks a jaw-dropping $63 million was up for grabs, more than the entire purse of the 1995 season. The Tour earmarked $35 million of the pot for deferred retirement accounts. This saved the players a bundle on taxes but denied them the instant gratification they are so accustomed to. Woods, one of the less shrill voices, noted that he might be dead by the time the money becomes available. Given the players’ grumbling, it’s a near certainty that next year less of the money will go toward the retirement plan.

More important changes should be made to improve the competition. It would be helpful if the points distribution is tweaked to allow for more volatile movement up and down the standings during the playoffs. This would add more drama to each of the four tournaments, especially the Tour Championship, where last week the vast majority of the 30 players were simply taking up space. And while they’re at it, the Tour’s nomenclature could also use some editing. Playoffs imbues the events with a win-or-go-home urgency that is mostly lacking. Payoffs is more like it.

These quibbles aside, the FedEx Cup already seems on firm footing, especially with the way Woods’s dominance instantly stamped it with his imprimatur. In fact, the only time he seemed the least bit flummoxed last week was during the trophy ceremony, at which he received a crystal concoction for winning the Tour Championship and an oversized silver thingy for the FedEx victory. As Woods posed with various dignitaries, a harried, white-gloved official kept switching out the trophies. “I’m having trouble keeping track of which is which,” Woods said at one point, but he didn’t seem to mind the confusion too much. It’s not often you get two trophies for the price of one.