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Dark horses lurking at East Lake

By Rex HoggardSeptember 22, 2017, 11:15 pm

ATLANTA – The point of the FedExCup Playoffs was never about doling out an eight-figure check or giving players a reason to learn long division, it was about tidy finishes.

Prior to the playoff experiment, which began in 2007, there were too many years when players arrived with the year’s biggest questions long answered. Think of it as an all-star game without the home run derby, or any meaningful outcome.

The PGA Tour wanted a big finish where players vied for the season’s most meaningful accomplishments, non-major championship division, with a decisive conclusion.

The result has been a work-in-progress, but has largely delivered on that promise.

Consider that in 2006, Tiger Woods had won eight times, including The Open and PGA Championship, and had wrapped up the money title and Player of the Year Award. And what did he do at East Lake? Nothing, he didn’t play. He didn’t need to.

Even in the FedExCup era there were early growing pains that kept the finale from being the desired send-off.

In 2011, Luke Donald finished tied for third at the finale following a phenomenal season, but the Englishman still needed a walk-off win at the Disney event a few weeks later, a windfall worth $846,000, to clip Webb Simpson by $335,000 for the cash crown (remember when the money title meant something?)

But those quirks have slowly been removed from the equation. First the Tour introduced the wraparound season and then crunched the postseason points so that those who had played the most consistent year would have a distinct advantage.

Clean, consistent, calculated, right?

Well, Friday’s leaderboard at East Lake paints a slightly different picture.


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Current FedExCup Playoff points standings


Although Justin Thomas – whose second-round 66 left him tied for the lead with Paul Casey and Simpson – could restore order to the Tour’s postseason with a victory on Sunday that would assure him the cup and the Jack Nicklaus Award, there are enough would-be dark horses looming to make things interesting.

“I like to play spoiler,” Casey said with a mischievous smile.

Casey has been in this position before. In fact, he was the potential author of what Tour types would consider the “nuclear option” in 2010 when he needed only a runner-up finish at East Lake to claim the cup without having won that season.

“That would have been very wrong to win the FedExCup not winning an event, but I would have had no issue with it,” laughed Casey, who is 10th on the postseason points list.

Simpson would be an even bigger Cinderella at 16th on the playoff points list and through two steady rounds (66-67) he’s poised as the ultimate party crasher.

 “I think guys are probably looking at hey, what are the scenarios that could possibly pull a Bill Haas or whatever it may be,” Jordan Spieth said.

Haas famously began the 2011 Tour Championship 25th on the peculiar points list but rallied at East Lake for the title and the cup to become the 1969 “Miracle Mets” of golf’s postseason.

But then Haas’ par save from East Lake - the actual lake - on the 71st hole isn’t happening this year after record rains in the Atlanta area, and for this year’s Cinderella to prevail they will need an assist from the game’s best and brightest: Spieth, Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Marc Leishman and Jon Rahm, the five horsemen who arrived at the finale in the theoretical pole positions – Nos. 1 through 5 on the points list, respectively.

Each can claim the cup with a victory at the Tour Championship, but more to the complicated point they could walk away with the oversized check with a vast assortment of middle-of-the-pack showings.

Spieth could “mathematically” win with a finish as low as 29th, out of 30; and Thomas could fade all the way to sixth and still be in the equation.

But if the scenario of someone outside the coveted top 5 winning the proclaimed season-long race offends the competitive senses of some, it does, and has, made for a unique style of golf each September at East Lake.

Even the most reserved player embraces an added sense of urgency at the Tour Championship, where there is literally no reason to play the safe shot or temper one’s expectations.

“There's no next week for me,” said Gary Woodland, who is tied for fourth place after starting the week 28th on the points list. “We're out here, we're playing aggressive, trying to get the ball in the fairway and then attacking from there. We're definitely playing more aggressive this week than we have all year, which is nice. That's probably why I'm playing well.”

Any number of players could play spoiler this week – from Justin Rose (No. 8) who is tied with Woodland to rookie Xander Schauffele (No. 26), who is in a group at 5 under – and on this history is rather clear.

Just twice in the playoff era has the winner of the Tour Championship not won the FedExCup, but as the postseason has evolved the finale has proven to be exceedingly good at delivering on its original promise – a clean finish.

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McCarthy wins Web.com Tour Championship by 4

By Associated PressSeptember 24, 2018, 2:14 am

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Denny McCarthy won the season-ending Web.com Tour Championship on Sunday to earn fully exempt PGA Tour status and a spot in the Players Championship.

McCarthy closed with a 6-under 65 for a four-stroke victory over Lucas Glover at Atlantic Beach Country Club. The 25-year-old former Virginia player earned $180,000 to top the 25 PGA Tour card-earners with $255,793 in the four-event Web.com Tour Finals.

''It's been quite a journey this year,'' McCarthy said. ''The PGA Tour was tough to start out the year. I stuck through it and got my game. I raised my level and have been playing some really good golf. Just feels incredible to finish off these Finals. So much work behind the scenes that nobody really sees.''

McCarthy finished at 23-under 261.


Full-field scores from the Web.com Tour Championship


Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, closed with a 69. He made $108,000 to finish seventh with $125,212 in the series for the top 75 players from the Web.com regular-season money list, Nos. 126-200 in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings, and non-members with enough money to have placed in the top 200.

Jim Knous earned the 25th and final card from the four-event money list with $41,931, edging Justin Lower by $500. Knous made a 5-foot par save on the final hole for a 71 that left him tied for 57th. Lower missed an 8-footer for birdie, settling for a 69 and a tie for 21st.

''It was a brutal day emotionally,'' Knous said. ''I wasn't quite sure how much my performance would affect the overall outcome. It kind of just depended on what everybody else did. That's pretty terrifying. So I really just kind of did my best to stay calm and inside I was really freaking out and just super psyched that at the end of the day finished right there on No. 25.''

The top-25 finishers on the Web.com regular-season money list competed against each other for tour priority, with regular-season earnings counting in their totals. Sungjae Im topped the list to earn the No. 1 priority spot of the 50 total cards.

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LaCava pushed Woods to work on bunker game

By Rex HoggardSeptember 24, 2018, 1:52 am

ATLANTA – Last week as Tiger Woods prepared to play the season finale at East Lake he sent a text message to his caddie Joey LaCava that simply asked, what do I need to do to get better?

Although when it comes to Woods his proficiency is always relative, but LaCava didn’t pull any punches, and as the duo completed the final round on Sunday at the Tour Championship with a bunker shot to 7 feet at the last the two traded knowing smiles.

“We had a talk last week about his bunker game and I said, ‘I’m glad you kept that bunker game stuff in mind,’” LaCava said. “I told him he was an average bunker player and he worked at it last week. There were only two bunker shots he didn’t get up-and-down, I don’t count the last one on 18. He recognized that after two days. He was like, ‘What do you know, I’m 100 percent from the bunkers and I’m in the lead after two days.”


Final FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

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For the week, Woods got up-and-down from East Lake’s bunkers seven out of nine times and cruised to a two-stroke victory for his first PGA Tour title since 2013. That’s a dramatic improvement over his season average of 49 percent (100th on Tour).

“His bunker game was very average coming into this week,” LaCava said. “I said you’ve got to work on your bunker game. If you had a decent bunker game like the Tiger of old you would have won [the BMW Championship].”

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For Woods, is this only the beginning?

By Damon HackSeptember 24, 2018, 1:42 am

If this is Tiger Woods nine months into a comeback, wait until he actually shakes the rust off.

This was supposed to be the year he kicked the tires, to see how his body held up after all those knives digging into his back.

To see if a short game could truly be rescued from chunks and skulls.

To see if a 42-year-old living legend could outfox the kids.

On the final breath of the PGA Tour season, it was Tiger Woods who took ours away.

Playing alongside Rory McIlroy on Sunday at the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club – and one group behind the current World No. 1 and eventual FedEx Cup champion Justin Rose – Woods bludgeoned the field and kneecapped Father Time. 

It was Dean Smith and the Four Corners offense.  Emmitt Smith moving the chains. Nolan Ryan mowing them down.

And all of a sudden you wonder if Phil Mickelson wishes he’d made alternate Thanksgiving plans.

Even if everybody saw a win coming, it was something else to actually see it happen, to see the man in the red shirt reach another gear just one more time.

Win No. 80 reminded us, as Roger Maltbie once said of Woods when he came back from knee surgery in 2009: “A lot of people can play the fiddle. Only one guy is Itzhak Perlman.”

It wasn’t long ago that Tiger Woods seemed headed toward a disheartening final chapter as a broken man with a broken body.


Final FedExCup standings

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He would host a couple of tournaments, do some great charity work, shout instructions into a walkie talkie at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and call it a career.

There would be no Nicklaus 1986 Masters moment, no Hogan Mystique at Merion.

He would leave competitive golf as perhaps both the greatest to ever play the game and its greatest cautionary tale.

Willie Mays with the New York Mets. Muhammad Ali taking punishment from Larry Holmes.

But then Brad Faxon and Rickie Fowler started whispering at the end of 2017 that Tiger was healthy and hitting the ball hard. 

There was that hold-your-breath opening tee shot at the Hero World Challenge, a bullet that flew the left bunker and bounded into the fairway.

Rollercoaster rides at Tampa and Bay Hill, backward steps at Augusta and Shinnecock, forward leaps at The Open and the PGA.

He switched putters and driver shafts (and shirts, oh my!) and seemed at times tantalizingly close and maddeningly far.

That he even decided to try to put his body and game back together was one of the all-time Hail Marys in golf.

Why go through all of that rehab again?

Why go through the scrutiny of having your current game measured against your untouchable prime?

Because you’re Tiger Woods, is why, because you’ve had way more wonderful days on the golf course than poor ones, despite five winless years on the PGA Tour.

Suddenly, Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour wins is in jeopardy and Jack Nicklaus, holder of a record of 18 major championships, is at the very least paying attention.

Woods has put the golf world on notice.

It won’t be long until everyone starts thinking about the 2019 major schedule (and you’d better believe that Tiger already is).

The Masters, where he has four green jackets and seven other Top 5 finishes. The PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, where he won in 2002 by 3. The United States Open at Pebble Beach, where he won in 2000 by 15.

The Open at Royal Portrush, where his savvy and guile will be a strong 15th club.

But that’s a talk for a later date.

Tiger is clearly still getting his sea legs back.

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Nonfactor McIlroy mum after lackluster 74

By Mercer BaggsSeptember 24, 2018, 1:04 am

ATLANTA – Rory McIlroy didn’t have anything to say to the media after the final round of the Tour Championship, and that’s understandable.

McIlroy began the final round at East Lake three shots behind Tiger Woods. He finished six back.

McIlroy closed in 4-over 74 to tie for seventh place.

In their matchup, Woods birdied the first hole to go four in front, and when McIlroy bogeyed the par-4 fourth, he was five in arrears. McIlroy went on to make three more bogeys, one double bogey and just two birdies.


Final FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos


McIlroy was never a factor on Sunday and ultimately finished tied for 13th in the FedExCup standings.

The two rivals, Woods and McIlroy, shared plenty of conversations while walking down the fairways. On the 18th hole, Woods said McIlroy told him the scene was like the 1980 U.S. Open when people were shouting, “Jack’s back!”

“I said, ‘Yeah, I just don’t have the tight pants and the hair,’” Woods joked. “But it was all good.”

It’s now off to Paris for the upcoming Ryder Cup, where Woods and McIlroy will again be foes. It will be McIlroy’s fifth consecutive appearance in the biennial matches, while Woods is making his first since 2012.