After two lackluster campaigns, the FedEx Cup produced a bit of drama in 2009. Thanks to a change in the points system, a player could have won the first three events and still not have captured the $10 million bonus prize. Fair or not, it added excitement until the end, when Tiger Woods won the top prize and Phil Mickelson captured the Tour Championship.
The PGA Tour liked what it saw enough to offer no alterations for 2010. And, again fair or not, it produced four great tournaments with a grand finale.
It began at The Barclays in Paramus, N.J., continued with the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston, carried over into the BMW Championship near Chicago, and concluded with a free-for-all at the Tour Championship in Atlanta.
Ernie Els entered the playoffs atop the FedEx Cup standings following a reset of points. Els, however, hadn’t won since March and ultimately finished ninth after four unimpressive performances.
Jim Furyk was third in the initial playoff standings, but nearly dropped out of the picture when his cell phone, which he uses as an alarm clock, died on the eve of the tournament and he missed his pro-am time. Under PGA Tour rules, he was disqualified from the tournament proper.
But the big story leading into the event was Tiger Woods. The two-time FedEx Cup champion began the playoffs 112th in points, with the top 100 advancing to Round 2. Despite a blasé T-12, he still managed to move onto Boston in 65th place.
In the end, it was Matt Kuchar holding The Barclays trophy, along with his two sons, thanks to one clutch shot and two poor putts from Martin Laird.
Laird needed only to two-putt from 25 feet on the final hole of regulation to win his first PGA Tour event. Instead, he ran the first putt 7 feet past and missed the comeback putt for par. On the first hole of sudden death, Kuchar hit a 7-iron from 192 yards out of the rough. The ball ran through the green, caught the back fringe, turned left toward the hole and settled 30 inches away for the winning birdie.
Kuchar, who was arguably the most consistent player of the “regular” season despite not winning, was both victorious and in the mix for Player of the Year.
Deutsche Bank Championship
The second playoff event saw similarities to the first. There was Chad Campbell, who like Furyk before him, was disqualified. Campbell’s offense – failing to register – knocked him out of the playoffs, though.
There was Woods, who posted a mundane T-11 and managed to stay alive as well as winless.
And there was Phil Mickelson, who for the umpteenth time had a chance to usurp Woods atop the world ranking, but fell flat with a closing 76.
The Deutsche Bank conclusion, however, was quite dissimilar to The Barclays’. There was no playoff, no dramatic final shot. Just a dominating final round by Charley Hoffman.
The mop-topped Californian lit off Labor Day fireworks with a 9-under 62 at TPC Boston to win by five over three others.
Hoffman moved from 59th in the FedEx Cup standings to second. He also locked up a spot in the finale as well as all four majors in 2011, including what will be his first Masters Tournament.
The third event of the playoffs will be remembered for two items: Dustin Johnson’s resolve and Tiger Woods’ fall.
For the first time, Woods failed to qualify for the Tour Championship. His tie for 15th left him well outside the cut line for the top 30.
“That’s just the way it is,” Woods said. “I didn’t play well early in the year, and I didn’t play well in the middle of the year.”
Johnson had played well all year. He won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for a second consecutive season and nearly captured two majors – nearly.
Johnson led by three through 54 holes in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but imploded early in the final round and shot 82. At the PGA Championship, he led by one on the 72nd hole and seemingly made bogey to fall into a three-way playoff. It was determined soon thereafter that he unwittingly grounded his club in a fairway bunker and his 5 was changed to a 7. No playoff, no major title.
There was also no self pity and no loathing. Johnson refused to wallow and instead rebounded for his second victory of the year at Cog Hill.
Playing in the final group, the 26-year-old blasted a monumental tee shot over the trees on the par-4 17th to set up a tap-in birdie for the outright lead. Up one, and just a month removed from being in a similar situation at the PGA, Johnson calmly made par to showcase his grit – and immense talent.
Even sans Woods, the Tour Championship was full of drama. In addition to the tournament title and FedEx Cup crown being up for grabs, so, too, was the Player of the Year award.
For once, it seemed like the PGA Tour had what it wanted during football season – an ultimate event that would determine a true champion, much like the NFL does with their final game which we aren’t legally allowed to mention by name.
As was the case a year ago, due to the points system, all 30 players in the field had a chance to win the Cup. But this time, five of them held their fate in their hands.
Kuchar, Johnson, Hoffman, Steve Stricker and Paul Casey could win the $10 million bonus with a win in Atlanta.
Kuchar, who was a celebrated amateur at Georgia Tech, held the top spot in the standings and was also among the favorites for Player of the Year, along with Johnson and Masters champion Mickelson.
Then there were a pair of intriguing side stories involving Casey. The Englishman had not been granted a roster spot on the European Ryder Cup team and was dead set on proving to captain Colin Montgomerie that the Scot had made a huge mistake. There was also the matter of winning, which Casey had not done on Tour this year and projections showed that he could fail to win the Tour Championship as well and still claim the FedEx Cup.
Casey gave it a great run, eventually finishing T-4. His performance was better than the four guys in front of him in the standing, Kuchar (T-25), Johnson (T-22), Stricker (T-25) and Hoffman (sixth). But – once again – it wasn’t good enough.
From the shadows emerged Furyk, the man who missed the first playoff event due to a faulty cell phone/alarm clock.
Thanks to an even-par 70 during a demanding third round, Furyk held a one-shot lead entering the final stanza. But because he was 11th in the FedEx Cup standing to start the week, he needed more than to just win the event in order to capture the Cup.
Casey, who was four back through 54 holes, could still finish solo second and win the $10 million bonus. Charley Hoffman, who was five back, could finish alone in third and do the same.
It made for an intriguing final 18 holes, and it wasn’t settled until the final shot.
Within the final hour of play, five people still had a chance to win the Cup. But when Casey bogeyed the 17th and Furyk birdied 15, the latter held a three-stroke lead.
He almost let it slip away however, like sand through his fingers. Furyk bogeyed 16 and 17 to enter the final hole with a one-shot advantage.
On the par-3 18th, Furyk hit his tee shot into the left greenside bunker. With rain steadily falling, and a bogey meaning a sudden-death playoff with Luke Donald, Furyk hit the bunker shot of his life, nearly holing it and landing it to inside 3 feet.
Turning his hat backward to keep the rain from dripping off its bill, Furyk rapped in the par putt and let out his most exuberant fist pump ever.
'It just hit me,' Furyk said of his reaction. 'I was excited and dropped the putter and ... I don't know. I guess at that moment, you're not really responsible for what happens next.'
There was good cause to celebrate: Furyk won the $1.35 million first-place prize, the $10 million bonus and wrapped up Player of the Year honors with his third win of the season.
He also put a big, flashy bow on what was easily the most exciting PGA Tour Playoffs in its brief four-year existence.