NORTON, Mass. – It will be of little solace to Ryan Palmer that next year, if PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and his mad FedEx Cup scientists get their way, there will likely not be as much volatility in the playoffs.
With apologies to Palmer – who may not be among the circuit’s top 70 in FedEx Cup computations but is easily among the top 10 good guys – but after muddy Monday’s frantic give and take at TPC Boston we’re not convinced explosiveness is the postseason’s public enemy No. 1.
Palmer, you see, missed the cut at the Deutsche Bank Championship and watched from home in Texas as the points and pars and players aligned against him to the tune of .47 point. That’s the difference between Palmer and No. 70 Ernie Els, who for the second time in three years clawed his way to the BMW Championship via Boston.
And as compelling as that drama may seem, it could have been the third-best “bubble” story on a day that featured two weather delays and enough clutch golf to hopefully make Finchem & Co. rethink a proposed plan to dial back the volatility in the playoffs.
It’s a study in psychology how the duel for the final automatic qualifying spot on the U.S. team played out.
Simpson began the week ninth on the points list, just ahead of Johnson. Both were lapped by Steve Stricker – the game’s best part-time player since Jack Nicklaus in 1986 – who finished alone in second place to jump into the top 10 in points and onto Freddie Couples’ team.
Following the second weather warning, Simpson had crunched the numbers enough to know the deal.
“I knew we were so close and I knew every shot counted,” he said.
Johnson, however, had come up with a different equation.
“He told me he was (No.) 9 and my perspective on it was we were too far out, we were 50-something (place), coming into today and I’m thinking we couldn’t get to the dollar amount that would separate us enough,” Johnson admitted.
With a relatively firm grasp on what hung in the balance, Simpson bogeyed two of his last four holes for a closing 70. With something well short of no clue regarding his Presidents Cup predicament, Johnson birdied two of his last three holes on his way to a 66.
The difference of roughly $36,000 between Johnson’s tie for 27th and Simpson’s tie for 53rd was enough to secure Johnson his ticket at Muirfield Village and Simpson a date with his smart phone on Wednesday when Couples makes his two captain’s picks.
When informed of the change of fortune between himself and Simpson, Johnson dropped his head.
“If that was the case I wish we were tied at 10th (on the U.S. points list),” he said. “I want Webb on that team.”
Well-placed sentiment to be sure, but that is now Couples’ problem.
At least Captain America won’t have to worry about burning a pick on Stricker, who in just 11 starts this season finds himself eighth on the FedEx Cup points list and first on Couples’ Christmas card list.
“I texted Freddie earlier in the week, I didn’t want one of his spots as a pick, I wanted to make the team on my own,” said Stricker, who closed with a 67 to finish two shots behind winner Henrik Stenson.
Els found himself in a similar head-to-head bout with Brendan Steele on Monday. After beginning the week 91st in FedEx Cup points, it seemed likely the Big Easy needed to outplay Steele when the two teed off together for the final turn, and he seemed to let his playoff hopes slip away with missed birdie chances from 12 feet at the 13th, 20 feet at the 16th and 10 feet at No. 17.
Steele birdied his last four holes after three-putting the 14th hole to jump from 89th to 69th on the points list and into the BMW Championship.
“I knew I started a spot in front of him, so I knew I had to play as good as him to keep pace,” said Steele, who closed with a 69 to tie for 20th. “I was almost like, you’re in the last group and this is a two-man race.”
The math, however, eventually went Els’ way as well, and he and Steele were two of seven players who played their way into the top 70 and next week’s third playoff gathering, a group that included Marc Leishman whose tie for 16th may have also been enough to earn him a spot on the International Presidents Cup team when captain Nick Price makes his picks on Wednesday.
Yet perhaps the day’s most intriguing story was Jordan Spieth playing his way over a metaphorical bubble and, if public sentiment is any indication, onto Couples’ team.
The American phenom played his last four holes in 5 under, including a 23-foot eagle putt at the last, to post a 62 and tie for fourth. Although it wasn’t enough to crack the top 10 on the Presidents Cup points list, it seems certain to attract the attention of Couples on Wednesday.
Spieth was a popular pick entering the week having become the first player since Tiger Woods in 1996 to forge his way from no status to East Lake in a single season. His Monday magic may have been the final statement Couples needed to select the rookie.
“That’s up to (Couples) if I’ve done enough,” Spieth said.
Johnson will not have to wait for his phone to buzz on Wednesday to know if his finish at TPC Boston was good enough to make the team, although he struggled for words when asked what it all meant. “Go USA,” he smiled and sprinted into the gloom.
Volatility, it seems, has its place.