NORTON, Mass. – “Fever Pitch,” the 2005 tome to the end of Boston’s curse, it wasn’t, not with two playoff events, four Fall Series tilts, a Presidents Cup and more silly stops than one season can stomach. But as a litmus test for the game’s ever-evolving postseason Deutsche Bank Championship, Monday was a sign of progress.
The FedEx Cup playoffs may never resonate like postseasons in other sports, a concept complicated by the intricacies of a game dominated by independent contractors and a history written at the majors, but on Monday the Tour’s experiment took a step forward, if not with the masses then with the men who vie for the Cup. Or maybe it’s the $10 million jackpot waiting at the end of the road in Atlanta.
Not that it mattered to Ernie Els, who has used these end-of-days playoffs to rekindle a competitive fire that had been missing; or Chez Reavie, a Tour outcast of sorts that wasn’t just playing for his playoff future but his year. And certainly not for Webb Simpson, who in three short weeks has vaulted from prospect to prohibitive FedEx Cup favorite.
Cynics will dismiss the playoffs as a money grab – millionaires playing for millions, and, essentially, the postseason has amounted to little more than that for four seasons. But on Monday at TPC Boston, the cash dash delivered a product that was well, playoff-like.
The money may bring the players calling, but it is the thrill of the hunt that the collective savors.
“The joy I get from what I do is not from money. It’s about getting into playoffs and the thrill of trying to win,” said Simpson, who closed with an eventful 65 and laid two birdies in extra frames on Reavie to take his second Tour title in three weeks.
That the dramatic finish put Simpson in line to win the Cup filled with $10 million was of less interest to him than a pair of clutch birdie putts in overtime to clip Reavie.
Let the record show that although TPC Boston is often maligned with the title “bomber’s paradise,” the layout served as an equal opportunity scoring-fest, rewarding the plodders as well as the ponders on Monday.
Two-way traffic is the sign of any good championship, but on Monday at TPC Boston the flow resembled that of Interstate-495, deadlocked on the northbound side with vacationers returning from Cape Cod following a holiday weekend, but nearly abandoned headed south.
No fewer than five players held a share of the lead through a windswept afternoon, and that didn’t include Bubba Watson who began the day with a one-stroke advantage but quickly became an afterthought as the traffic ahead picked apart TPC Boston.
Even before Watson teed off he’d fallen behind Brandt Snedeker, who played his first five holes in 4 under. By the turn the top spot was shared by world No. 1 Luke Donald, Snedeker and Simpson.
But as the wind and pressure picked up on the back side, players fell away. Donald airmailed the green at the 12th, caught his third shot heavy, his fourth thin and penciled in a double bogey-6, while Snedeker was undone by three late bogeys. Leaving just Reavie, who birdied four of his last eight holes and was nursing a one-stroke lead before he flew the final green and failed to convert his 12 footer for par.
It was about the only thing Reavie missed all day.
TPC Boston may be a bomber’s course, but the playoff came down to the week’s top two putters. Simpson – who had 13 one-putt greens on Monday, including the playoff – finished tied for third in putting and first in “putts made distance,” tied with Reavie.
For Simpson, his putting epiphany occurred during his opening round at the PGA Championship when he noticed on the 15th green that his routine to line up putts was much faster during the round than it was when he practiced. Since he’s adjusted, he’s 2-for-3, adding the Deutsche Bank to his Wyndham Championship title.
“It was a big turning point that we worked on and trusted it,” said Simpson, who carded all four rounds in the 60s (69-68-67-65) to finish at 15 under.
Yet playoff pressure transcended the leaderboard. There was Els, who has now played his last three events facing FedEx Cup elimination, grinding down the stretch to crack the top 70 and advance to the BMW Championship in two weeks. He birdied the last to finish 68th.
When asked if he could compare the pressure he felt on Monday to that of trying to actually win a tournament, Els’ response was telling: “It’s worse. You screw up on 18 to win a tournament you still get second place and $600,000. Screw up here and you’re going home.”
Chris Stroud could relate. Following a double bogey at No. 14 he figured his playoffs were over. “I knew I’d blew myself out there,” he said.
It is a measure of the playoff’s growing appeal, however, it was Stroud that drew a media crowd following his round – not playing partner Hunter Mahan, whose closing 66 gave him a however-fleeting clubhouse lead at 10 under.
“I saw I was 76 (in FedEx Cup points) on 15 green (following a double bogey-bogey stretch) and figured I needed to birdie the last three to have a chance,” Stroud said. There was no birdie-birdie-birdie finish. Instead, he nearly holed his second shot from 232 yards at the par-5 closing hole for a tap-in eagle to advance to the third round of the playoffs.
Geoff Ogilvy, however, may have been the ultimate playoff poster child. Following bogeys at Nos. 14 and 16 he also assumed his postseason days were numbered, but a birdie at the last lifted him into, and Kevin Na out of, the top 70.
“I get rewarded with a trip to Cog Hill,” said Ogilvy, a back-handed comment considering the Australian’s antipathy toward the Rees Jones redesign in Chicago, but compelling stuff none the less.
What the playoffs lack in “curb appeal,” they seem to be making up for at the grass-roots level with the rank and file. Just ask Reavie, who just days earlier had cut short an explanation on his limited Tour status – essentially he currently is not qualified to play the Fall Series but he is in the Tour Championship – for an impromptu moment of show-and-tell.
As he rolled up his right pant leg to expose a 6-inch scar, the byproduct of ACL surgery last June that sent him to an extended stay on the “DL” and a questionable Tour future, he allowed himself a moment of self-indulgence: “I just want to win,” he said after Friday’s round. Four days and 56 holes later he was still overwhelmed by the thought.
“It's unbelievable,” an emotional Reavie allowed. “Starting the year on a medical (exemption) and not knowing what's going to happen, to be able to go to the Tour Championship is a goal. It's what I wanted to do.”
No, the Tour’s postseason is not quite “Fever Pitch,” but it’s getting there.