ATLANTA – The year of coloring outside the lines finally stayed on script.
The same game that gave us Angel Cabrera over Kenny Perry at Augusta National, Lucas Glover over Phil Mickelson and David Duval at Bethpage, Stewart Cink over Tom Watson at Turnberry and Y.E. Yang over Tiger Woods at Hazeltine Naitonal delivered a double matinee worthy of all the playoff hype.
After two high fastballs the Tour never sniffed to begin the playoff experiment, officials were treated to a timeless walkoff courtesy Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods on Sunday at sun-splashed East Lake. Alpha, meet Omega.
Mickelson won the battle, a three-stroke victory at East Lake to cap an emotional year, while Woods won the war, a second-time FedEx Cup champion despite a pitched Sunday afternoon that taxed pocket calculators and prognosticators everywhere.
For Woods, the FedEx Cup is a fitting end to a year that began with more uncertainty than many understood and yet again validated those endless hours with swing coach Hank Haney on Isleworth’s practice range retooling for the long haul.
As for Mickelson, he simply putted like he did when he was a kid, and on Sunday he played like one – fearless and undaunted by a four-stroke deficit and an all-star cast assembled between himself and that crystal keepsake.
Things didn’t start well for Mickelson. He played ping-pong at the 14th hole on Thursday and took an eight, had not graced a Tour leaderboard since that rainy week in June on Long Island, and at one point early in the proceedings he was nine strokes off the lead.
“Even when I was playing hockey there on 14 Thursday, you know, slapping the ball all around the green, I still felt much better about my game and I was excited about playing even though I wasn't getting out of my round on Thursday what I should have,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson – who missed much of the summer schedule to stay at home with his wife, Amy, who was diagnosed with breast cancer – followed his opening 73 with rounds of 67-66. However, he still seemed an afterthought heading into the final turn at East Lake, thanks to Perry’s near-flawless play on Saturday and Woods’ dogged pursuit.
On Saturday, Mickelson made little signs out of big ones on the 13th hole, side kicking a marker to splinters. Who knew his next action would be a high-flying haymaker to East Lake’s short field?
Mickelson birdied two of first four holes on Sunday, dropped two more before the turn to overtake a sputtering Perry and never let up on the pedal on his way to his second Tour Championship title.
With a commanding two-stroke lead at the turn, Phil thrilled and the chorus that met him on the closing nine had a Bethpage feel to it. New York, new south? Same difference.
Perhaps the only off-script portion of the proceedings occurred behind the 16th green on Sunday. With his ball nestled into a nasty Bermuda grass lie, Mickelson lofted his 64-degree wedge shot into the hole. A defining moment, to be sure, but the winner in Mickelson’s bag for the week was his putter thanks to a bold suggestion by his caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay and two enlightening days with Dave Stockton last week in Southern California.
Discouraged by poor putting that didn’t allow him to make the most of his retooled and tighter swing, Mickelson met with Stockton at the urging of Mackay who reinforced many of the same concepts Lefty embraced when he was younger – hands forward, club head straight back and straight through. The results were unmistakable – a tie for third for the week in putts made distance and second among the 30-man field in putting with just 107 attempts.
“(Stockton) said, ‘Nobody will putt as well as you and I with our hands like that because we're leading with the back of our hand,’” Mickelson said. “Once he said that, I said, yeah, that's right, I've always believed that. So I went back to it, and it's been a night and day difference for me.”
As for that Chuck Norris action, the viewing public shouldn’t be surprised considering Lefty has incorporated martial arts into his fitness routine for years.
“Phil has the capacity to be a first-degree black belt,” Mickelson’s uber-cool fitness guru Sean Cochran said. “But he can’t take me down. If he says that don’t believe it for a minute.”
Instead, Mickelson took down the field at East Lake and added to his impressive Georgia resume that counts victories at the Masters, the now-defunct BellSouth Classic and the Tour Championship.
Yet as impressive and inspiring, as Mickelson’s victory was, it shared equal billing with the week’s undercard, the FedEx Cup.
The forecast for most of the week called for cloudy skies with a chance of abject boredom thanks to Woods’ near-flawless form. The world No. 1 opened with 67, followed with middle cards of 68-69 and seemed poised to roll past Perry on his way to the season-ending two-fer, the FedEx Cup and another Tour Championship for an $11.3 million four-day haul. Not bad work if you can get it.
But then what SubAir and suspect math created, neither Mother Nature nor Mickelson could put asunder.
Woods made a final run at Mickelson with birdies at the 15th and 16th holes and an agonizingly close near miss at the 17th hole with Lefty watching closely from the final tee, but he finished three shots back and alone in second place.
Woods had said the ‘W’ was what counted, everything else would follow, but that $10 million FedEx check ($9 million in cash and $1 million differed) will likely soften the blow.
“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,” said Woods, who was undone at East Lake by an unproductive week on the greens. “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, Kenny, Sean (O’Hair), we're all there, and it was just a great leaderboard. Come tomorrow, I'm sure I'll feel a lot better.”
Tomorrow he won’t be putting on the same table-top greens. Welcome to East Lake, a place where bunkers are no longer aiming points and grain is not just a Midwest staple. As a result, the playoff finale was Putting 101. Sean O’Hair thrived in Round 1 thanks to a putting tip from Woods on Wednesday and Mickelson closed the regular season with a flourish thanks to an encouraging two days with Stockton all because the 7,300-yard gem produced a putting contest. And no one suffered more from this certainty than Perry.
On golf’s Super Bowl Sunday, Perry was the halftime show. The man who can be found on many days behind the counter at Country Creek, the golf course he built in his Kentucky town, seemed in control at a wash-and-rinsed East Lake for three rounds. On Sunday, he looked awash in uncertainty.
Perry’s outward loop on Sunday had a used car lot feel to it – save, save, save – thanks to missed greens at nine of his first 11 holes. That is until the magic finally ran out. He chopped up the birdie-friendly ninth hole, stumbled at the 11th hole and never took a putt on his way to double bogey at the 13th. It all added up to 74 and a tie for fourth.
Perry’s consolation prize for the week was the Payne Stewart Award, which he’d been presented earlier in the week. But it was little solace.
East Lake was Perry’s second near miss in Georgia this year, but that Masters miss will likely linger much longer in the southerner’s psyche.
At the other end of the emotional pendulum is Mickelson, adrift for much of the season by much more important matters at home and vexed by streaky putting for so long.
On Sunday, he finally delivered. On Sunday, golf finally delivered.