By Pete Pappas
GolfWRX Staff Writer
The PGA Tour playoffs conclude this week with the fourth and final event of the FedExCup Playoffs, the Tour Championship in Atlanta. And for each of the 30 remaining gladiators battling on the 7,319 yard long East Lake Golf Course, the opportunity to take home a cool $10 million bonus awarded to the FedExCup winner means golf fans will be treated to some of the most gutsy, creative, go for broke, compelling, do-or-die shot making we’ve seen all season long.
$10 million is a career for some players, and earning that amount usually means winning about 10 times on Tour — something 90 percent of all Tour players won’t ever come close to. To put that in perspective, going as far back as 1890, only 95 players have won 10 times or more, and only nine current PGA Tour players have 10 or more career wins.
In other words, only a select group of golfers can reach the $10 million mark in a short period of time, let alone have an opportunity to grab it in one big swoop. And if just for that reason alone, the FedExCup Playoffs is officially “must see TV.”
However there are plentiful other compelling storylines besides the lucrative payout for the winner.
Heading into East Lake, Rory McIlroy is the story. McIlroy’s four wins this season is tops on Tour, and he’s coming off consecutive victories at the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship in the FedExCup playoffs, putting him in first place in the standings and positioning himself to win the FedExCup with a win outright (something any of the top-five players in the FedExCup standings can do).
Only four players, however, have won three consecutive events since McIlroy was born – including McIlroy’s new rival/buddy Tiger Woods (who did it in 2001). But stringing together three or more wins in a row is difficult to do, even for a prodigious talent like McIlroy. In fact, it hasn’t been done in close to a decade, with V.J. Singh being the last to accomplish that feat in 2004.
If McIlroy does win the Tour Championship however, he’ll join a list of legendary names like Walter Hagan (1923), Ben Hogan (1946), Arnold Palmer (1962) and Jack Nicklaus (1975), who among others all won three consecutive Tour events in their careers.
Moreover, another win would give McIlroy five wins for the season. And with McIlroy playing the best golf of his young career and just coming into his prime at the same time, it might not be too long before he adds his name to other prestigious lists like Nicklaus’ seven single-season victory total and Woods’ eight-time single-season record.
Since the FedExCup Playoffs began in 2007, the eventual winner never began outside the top-15 in pre-playoff FedExCup standings. And three of the five FedExCup champions also won the Tour Championship. And especially interesting is that in the previous eight Tour Championships played at East Lake, there have been eight different winners.
Along with defending champion Bill Haas, Jim Furyk is a previous FedExCup champion, winning in 2010 despite being disqualified for oversleeping and missing the first event, The Barclays. And in 2008 Singh wrapped up the FedExCup in total points by the conclusion of the BMW Championship, forcing the Tour to change the points system and add automatic resetting of points before the final tournament to ensure all playoff events are meaningful. The only two-time FedExCup champion is Woods, who won in 2007 and 2009. Not surprisingly, the TV ratings in each of those years were a whopping 100 percent higher than in any of the other years.
And with Woods, McIlroy, and Phil Mickelson all in the top-five in the FedExCup standings (and therefore each with the opportunity to win outright with a victory at East Lake), expect similar exceptional ratings – and play – this week.
PETE’S PICKS — BUY OR SELL
One of the top 7 will win the Tour Championship.
Buy Rory McIlroy (No. 1)
He’s the best player on the planet right now and destroyed the field at the PGA Championship, winning by a record eight strokes. He’s also the hottest player in the world having won the last two FedExCup Playoff events, The Deutsche Bank and The BMW Championship.
And McIlroy’s coming into his prime with his confidence at an all-time high. On the Late Night show with Jimmy Fallon, McIlroy coyly agreed with Fallon’s statement that McIlroy is the “greatest player in the world,” and played a little mind game with Tiger as well adding “that might be weird for Woods.”
The McIlroy-Woods rivalry is as close to a real rivalry the sport has seen in a generation, and is fanning the flames of both McIlroy’s and Woods’ competitive fire. The McIlroy-Woods rivalry is just taking shape, but I believe it’s one that will last a long time and push both players to be better than they’d ever be without the other.
This is McIlroy’s first appearance in the Tour Championship and if he plays his best, it will be impossible for anyone to defeat him – plain and simple.
Sell Rory McIlroy (No. 1)
That being said, I don’t think McIlroy will play his best. I don’t even think he’ll finish in the top-5 at East Lake.
This isn’t a knock or hate on McIlroy. I agree completely he’s currently the best player in the game. I just don’t think anyone can win three consecutive times on Tour with $10 million on the line.
Buy Tiger Woods (No. 2)
The McIlroy-Woods showdown has been the absolute, unmitigated, best thing that could have happened to Woods, hands down. Pairing Woods with McIlroy let Tiger focus on one thing – being the best.
No more thoughts on what’s right or wrong with his swing, or how close or far along he is in the process of getting where he needs to be. Not even thoughts about things out of bounds, outside the golf course, are interfering with Woods’ newfound aggressive focus.
McIlroy has lit a hellish fire under Tiger, forcing Woods to take his mind off the clutter of everything else in his life, and instead focus on what Tiger does best, “expecting” to be the best. He’s finished third and T4 at the Deutsche Bank and BMW Championship respectively.
Woods loves East Lake and has finished either first or second here a formidable six times.
Sell Tiger Woods (No. 2)
I’m still not convinced Woods can avoid that one bad weekend round that’s his biggest problem right now. Woods has shown he has all the tools and all the shots to go lower than anyone any given week, but he’s also shown he can’t put together those low rounds when it matters most on the weekend.
It’s an unfair criticism perhaps, because if McIlroy wasn’t on Tour, Woods performances would have been good enough to probably have two FedExCup victories himself.
Tiger’s made great strides this past month, but he won’t be able to put together four consecutive, mistake free rounds to win. I do expect him to finish top-5 however.
Buy Nick Watney (No. 3)
Watney can finish as low as fourth at East Lake and still win the FedExCup. And he has a T-4 finish here in 2010 where he posted a third round score of 63.
Sell Nick Watney (No. 3)
Watney’s season has been a huge disappointment with only two top-10 finishes all year before breaking through with a win at The Barclays. And I don’t see that win as a positive change in momentum as much as an aberration to an otherwise dismal season. Watney will finish anywhere between 10th and 15th.
Buy Phil Mickelson (No. 4)
Winning at Pebble Beach, Mickelson looked as good as anyone early on. And at the Northern Trust Open, a Mickelson victory could have set in motion the beginning to one of Lefty’s best seasons ever on Tour. Of course he lost to Bill Haas. And after that, he sort of sizzled out, and didn’t really complete except in spots for the remainder of the regular season.
But the sizzle returned for Lefty during these playoffs, and he looks like he’s having fun again. A T4 finish and T2 finish the last two playoff events makes me believe Lefty has some magic left for one last run — one last hurrah.
And Mickelson has played well at the Tour Championship the past five years, finishing third, seventh, second, 13th, and 15th respectively. Throw in the statistic that he’s fifth in strokes gained putting, and I believe it’s a recipe for a Mickelson victory at East Lake.
Sell Phil Mickelson (No. 4)
“Phil being Phil” is a double-edged sword. As ridiculous as Mickelson can be in a good way, he can be just as ridiculous in a bad way. And unfortunately it’s not entirely because of his health. Sometimes his gunslinger mentality gets the better of his judgment, and he makes poor decisions that cost him dearly (taking nothing away from Bubba Watson, but Mickelson lost the Masters more than Bubba won it in my opinion).
I’m nearly certain most of the season Mickelson has been bothered more than he let on by his psoriatic arthritis. And as a fierce competitor, Mickelson would never admit to that, if just for the fact it would open a Pandora’s Box that would have made things worse.
Fifth in strokes-gained putting, however, gives even a hurting Mickelson more than a fighting chance. But being 160th in driving accuracy is a specter that can destroy anyone’s game.
If Mickelson’s arthritis acts up, his putting fails him, or his driving is dismal, then he could drop as low as 15th to 20th place.
Buy Brandt Snedeker (No. 5)
Snedeker started strong in the playoffs with finishes of second and sixth at The Barclays and The Deutsche Bank. A Captain’s Pick for the Ryder Cup, Snedeker will have that extra edge to prove that Captain Love’s pick was justified.
A T3 finish at The Open Championship, a ranking of first in strokes gained putting and six top-10 finishes this season suggest he shouldn’t be overlooked. If he’s on, look out.
Sell Brandt Snedeker (No. 5)
East Lake is a long course and Snedeker isn’t particularly long (ranked 103rd in driving distance) or accurate (ranked 107th in driving accuracy). His GIR stats are also quite pedestrian (117th on Tour).
It’s Snedeker’s putting that keeps him in tournaments. If it flatstick fails, so will he. I like Snedeker to finish finish between 10th and 15th place.
Buy Dustin Johnson (No. 7)
If I had to pick anyone to win other than Mickelson, it would be Johnson. He has as much talent as anyone on Tour not named Rory or Tiger, yet he can’t seem to take that next step and cash it in with more wins.
But you can’t argue with his results in the playoffs so far. With a T3, T4, and T6 in The Barclays, Deutsche Bank and BMW Championship, he’s arguably playing as well as Tiger and Rory. A break here or there could have turned one of those impressive finishes into an even more impressive victory for Johnson.
The only way Johnson can win the FedExCup is for McIlroy and Woods to both finish third or worse, and Johnson to win the Tour Championship. Also a Captain’s Pick for the Ryder Cup, Johnson is going to want to prove he belongs on that team. Johnson is fifth in driving distance and seventh in scoring average. In three previous Tour Championship events, he’s finished 14th, fifth and fourth. I see him and Mickelson battling it out Sunday for the victory.
Sell Dustin Johnson (No. 7)
Nearly as erratic as Mickelson off the tee, Johnson is ranked 147th in driving accuracy, but even when he’s not hitting fairways, he still manages to score — he’s ranked 33d in scrambling.
But as impressive a number as that is, we’ve seen him have little distance control with his wedges. If that’s the Johnson who shows up at the Tour Championship, he could finish down near 25th to 30th place. It’s feast or famine for Johnson this week at East Lake.