ATLANTA – Phil Mickelson had the smaller check and felt like the biggest winner. Tiger Woods was congratulated after he finished second in the Tour Championship.
Sunday was the eighth time that golf’s two biggest stars finished 1-2 in a tournament.
Never have they shared the spotlight, each going home with a trophy that was meaningful in its own way.
Mickelson capped off a tumultuous summer at home with a spectacular rally at East Lake, closing with a 5-under 65 to go from four shots behind to a three-shot victory, his first since his wife and mother were diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring.
Woods made two late birdies, not enough to put any heat on Mickelson, but to secure the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus. It finished a season in which he won six times and was no worse than second in nine of his 17 tournaments.
“I like the way today went,” Mickelson said. “I was two back of him, I beat him by three. He gets the $10 million check, and I get $1 million. I’ve got no problem with that. I just love holding this finally.”
He motioned toward the crystal trophy of the Tour Championship, which has not belonged to him since he won in 2000 at East Lake by again rallying in the final round to beat Woods.
Mickelson finished at 9-under 271 and earned $1.35 million. He also collected $3 million for being second in the FedEx Cup. It was his third victory of the year, the 37th of his career and it pushed him back to No. 2 in the world ranking.
“It means a lot to finish the year off on such a good note,” Mickelson said. “We’ve been through a lot, and I’m very proud of my wife and my mom on the fight that they’ve been through. We’re in good shape. Although day-to-day is tough, and it’s not easy for them, we’re fortunate that our long-term outlook is good.”
Woods stood on the 18th green with his biggest rival, perturbed by his inability to make putts inside 20 feet, trying to remind himself that he had a remarkable season coming off major knee surgery.
“I’m sure I would probably be more happy tomorrow than I am right now, because you’re in the moment trying to win this event,” Woods said. “Winning takes care of everything. But when you’re in the moment out there, I’m trying to win a golf tournament. I’m trying to beat Phil, he’s trying to beat me … we’re all there, and it was just a great leaderboard.”
It was a great finish to a FedEx Cup that was compelling to the very end.
Three other players had a chance to capture the big prize along the back nine at East Lake.
– Kenny Perry had a two-shot lead to start the final round and doubled it after two holes, only to implode with poor tee shots, bad chips and missed putts that led to a 74.
– As it became clear Mickelson was headed toward victory, Steve Stricker only needed to finish ahead of Woods. He was in position until he found mud on his ball in the 16th fairway, sailed the green and made consecutive bogeys to shoot 69.
“I knew it was close, put it that way,” Stricker said of the FedEx Cup race. “Whatever. I played my hardest.”– Sean O’Hair stayed within range of Mickelson until he took a bogey on the 17th hole and wound up with a 69, alone in third.
“I was feeling the nerves a little bit out there, which was great to feel,” O’Hair said. “I just didn’t get it done.”
Mickelson’s only hope for the FedEx Cup was for Woods to finish eighth or worse, a remote possibility until Woods made his first birdie of the final round at No. 15, then ended a bizarre drought with a 35-foot birdie on the 16th. It was his first one-putt birdie in 24 holes.
Woods wasn’t paying a lick of attention to the FedEx Cup, only that other trophy.
“All I know is I was three and four back, I just needed to push, needed a run or two or three birdies to get me right back in the ball game,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, that run didn’t happen until 15. And that’s a little late.”
Mickelson seized control with a 31 on the front nine, and his lone birdie on the back came from a chip-in out of a nasty lie behind the 16th green that essentially secured his victory.
Confident as ever from his putting tips from former PGA champion Dave Stockton, Mickelson rolled in consecutive birdie putts of 15 feet on No. 3 and 30 feet on No. 4, then pulled into a share of the lead with a pitching wedge that caught the lip at No. 8 for a tap-in birdie.
Mickelson played the final 20 holes of the Tour Championship without a bogey.
Woods only cared about the Tour Championship, believing the FedEx Cup would take care of itself. When he captured the cup two years ago under a different points system, he won the final two events, including a seven-shot win at East Lake.
“It feels certainly not like it did a couple of years ago when I won the tournament,” Woods said. “That felt a little bit better.”
Despite a one-shot lead through 36 holes at East Lake, Woods struggled on the greens Saturday and with the rest of his game in the final round. Except for his two-putt birdie on the par-5 15th, he had only four birdie putts inside 20 feet and missed them all.
“Phil played well. He did the things he needed to do this week,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t putt well and consequently, I didn’t push him. Phil ran off and got away from us.”