Els and Others Happy to be Here

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2006 The TOUR Championship presented by Coca-ColaATLANTA -- For all the talk of a black cloud hanging over a TOUR Championship missing the PGA TOUR's two biggest stars, Ernie Els saw nothing but sunshine as he worked quietly on the practice green late Wednesday afternoon.
 
Not many were happier to be at East Lake for the season-ending event for the top 30 on the money list. Els squeaked in three days ago by saving par from 50 yards short of the 18th green, giving him one last chance to salvage his year with a victory.
 
Ernie Els
Ernie Els competes in Wednesday's pro-am at East Lake Country Club.
And that's when the light came on.
 
'At least I've got a chance,' he said. 'And it's a lot better when you only have to beat 26 guys.'
 
He doesn't have to beat Tiger Woods, the No. 1 player in the world who decided to end his PGA TOUR season a month ago by skipping the tour's version of the All-Star game for the first time. He doesn't have to worry about Phil Mickelson, who stuck to his strategy of calling it quits after the majors.
 
Also missing is Stephen Ames, winner of The Players Championship, who is nursing a sore back.
 
Reaction from the 27 players at East Lake competing for $6.5 million in prize money has been mixed. Some believe that Woods and Mickelson owe it to the PGA TOUR to show up at theTOUR Championship.
 
'I think the biggest players have a responsibility to the tour to play in these,' Arron Oberholser said. 'Tiger might not want to hear that, and Phil might not want to hear that, but they don't write my paycheck, so I don't care. I think it's about having a responsibility to your place in the game.'
 
On the other hand, Woods indirectly writes plenty of paychecks. It is his star power in the game that has caused exponential growth in prize money over the last three years. When Woods first played in the TOUR Championship, the purse was $3 million. This year, the winner gets $1.17 million.
 
'You could say Tiger and Phil are hurting the tour by not coming to the TOUR Championship,' U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said. 'But where would the TOUR be without Tiger and Phil? We'd be playing for $2.5 million this week. We'd have 20 tournaments. And no one would be watching on TV. We'd be back where we were 15 years ago.'
 
One way or the other, their absence has drawn more attention than the tournament. PGA TOUR commissioner Tim Finchem said he was disappointed by they were not at East Lake, although his thoughts were geared more toward next year at the FedExCup competition, which will end in September when the leaves are still green.
 
'I think players have an obligation to support the TOUR,' Finchem said. 'But after this many years on the job, I think in the long term. I don't get hung up on one week.'
 
Woods cited fatigue for missing the TOUR Championship for the first time. Returning from a nine-week absence after his father died, then missing the cut for the first time in a major, he won six of eight tournaments he played, lost the Ryder Cup and made a two-day trip to Ireland beforehand for practice.
 
Mickelson pours so much into the majors that he is exhauted by August. He stopped playing after the American Express Championship last year. This time, he stopped after the Ryder Cup.
 
'Phil was not a surprise to me,' Finchem said. 'Now that I know the details of Tiger's thing from last week, I understand how he came to his conclusion. It doesn't make me less disappointed, but I understand how he got there.'
 
That leaves Jim Furyk as the No. 1 player at East Lake, even though he is No. 2 in the world and No. 2 on the money list. He can't catch Woods for the money title, although a solid week should be enough for Furyk to win the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average.
 
Then again, he could have stayed home this week and still won the Vardon.
 
So what was he doing on the practice range, warming up with wedge shots over a pond to a green about 100 yards away?
 
'I like the golf course. I like the tournament,' he said between shots. 'And I kind of want to win the TOUR Championship.'
 
For others, there is plenty at stake.
 
Eight players have failed to win this year, and three are in the top 10 in the world ranking -- Els, Retief Goosen and Adam Scott.
 
Guys like Dean Wilson, who is No. 20 on the money list, also are grinding. If the Hawaii's best player can stay in the top 20, he will be exempt for the British Open next year and see some incentives kick in on endorsement deals.
 
Eleven players are at the TOUR Championship for the first time, such as Brett Quigley.
 
'It's like a Christmas present come early,' said Quigley, the only player in the 27-man field without a PGA TOUR victory. 'A win this week would be the ultimate.'
 
For Woods and Mickelson, it's a week off.
 
Davis Love III almost missed the TOUR Championship until winning in Greensboro, and he was looking forward to one more big tournament. Then again, maybe that's the problem with the TOUR Championship.
 
It used to be one of the big tournaments of the year, but now has lost some importance with so many other big events over the last 10 months. Including the majors, the PGA TOUR had 13 tournaments with total prize money of at least $6 million this year.
 
'What I tell Tim and the staff all the time is they're a victim of their own success,' Love said. 'The more big tournaments you get with big money, the more opportunities there are for guys to skip.'
 
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