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A decade of playoffs: From cash grab to competition

By Rex HoggardAugust 22, 2017, 7:59 pm

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – In the decade since the PGA Tour introduced the concept of a postseason to professional golf, the idea has meant many things to many different players.

For Tiger Woods, a two-time winner of the season-long race in 2007 and ’09, the FedExCup was little more than a device to remind all of his dominance; while for the likes of Billy Horschel, the lottery winner in ’14, it was an 11th-hour surge that turned a decent season into something truly special.

As the FedExCup has evolved, so has the motivation to play the postseason. A curious experiment in ’07 when the Tour launched the concept, it has slowly been transformed from a cash grab into a compelling competition.

“I'm going to approach the first two events trying to obviously win but looking to kind of crescendo into East Lake and peak there and consider East Lake a major at this point as far as our preparation goes,” Jordan Spieth said on his way out of town two weeks ago at the PGA Championship.


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FedExCup standings entering the playoffs


Although there is always a push to make the regular season a bigger part of the playoff picture, for the likes of Spieth, who won the FedExCup in ’15, this really boils down to the four postseason stops, or to drill down even deeper, the final stop in Atlanta.

Just twice in the history of the playoffs has the winner at the Tour Championship not taken home the season-ending double, in ’08 when Vijay Singh only had to remain upright for four days at East Lake to win it all and in ’09 when Woods won the $10 million jackpot but lost to Phil Mickelson at the finale.

What little history there is here is rather clear - the regular season and the first three postseason stops serve a purpose, but it’s the Tour Championship that ultimately decides the outcome and smart guys like Spieth have figured that out.

“You can come in with different kinds of starting points from the regular season but you've got to have at least a pretty solid season in the back,” said Henrik Stenson, who won the cup in ’13 and finished runner-up to Spieth in ’15. “Then you have to play well in the first three playoff events to make sure that you're inside the top 30, and most of the guys who have won it I'm sure have been within the top 5.”

Only Horschel and Bill Haas in ’11 have played their way to the cup from outside that magic top 5, both by winning the finale.

But if the various postseason strategies have evolved, so has the playoff’s position of importance.

When Woods won the inaugural race in ’07 much was made of the fact that he didn’t kiss the cup the way he would the claret jug or Wanamaker Trophy in victory. Although it was likely just an inadvertent oversight on Woods’ part, the symbolic lack of love was a metaphor for the postseason’s place among the game’s biggest events.

Spieth’s commitment to treating the Tour Championship like a major is a sign of how that outlook has evolved, much like this week’s field at the playoff opener in New York is a snapshot of the cup’s growing status.

While five players are skipping The Northern Trust, those no-shows are largely due to injury, like Brandt Snedeker, or family priorities, such as Adam Scott who returned home to Australia to be with his wife for the birth of the couple’s second child.

The top 5 on the points list – Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas, Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler – are all in the field this week even though mathematically they are all assured a start next month at East Lake.

Some of that is positioning and the desire to arrive at the Tour Championship inside the top 5 on the points list, which assures the cup with a victory at the finale, but there’s also something to be said for playing an event because it’s important.

The playoff stops aren’t majors. They aren’t World Golf Championships, but they do resonate more now than they did a decade ago and this goes well beyond a potential financial windfall when you consider that Matsuyama has already collected more than $8 million in earnings.

Or maybe the best example of the playoffs' evolving stature can be found in the nuances of competition. No player has ever won the FedExCup in back-to-back seasons, “Because Jordan Spieth made 50-foot bombs when he shouldn't have. Next question,” cracked Stenson, who came in second in the season-long race to Spieth in ’15.

It was a joke, but a punch line laced with enough truth to make a point. For Stenson – whose name is already etched into the FedExCup, not to mention the claret jug, and probably doesn’t need another $10 million payday – that loss two years ago still stings. The season-long race is important because they players say it is.

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1, 2, 3 out: Thornberry, Suh, Morikawa lose at U.S. Am

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 1:14 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The top three players in the world had a tough afternoon Wednesday at Pebble Beach.

Braden Thornberry, Justin Suh and Collin Morikawa – Nos. 1-3, respectively, in the World Amateur Golf Ranking – all lost their Round of 64 matches at the U.S. Amateur.

Thornberry lost, 2 and 1, to Jesus Montenegro of Argentina. As the No. 1 amateur in the world, the Ole Miss senior was in line to receive the McCormack Medal, which would exempt him into both summer Opens in 2019, provided he remains amateur. But now he’ll need to wait and see how the rankings shake out.

Suh and Morikawa could have played each other in the Round of 32, but instead they were both heading home early.


U.S. Amateur: Articles, photos and videos


Suh, a junior at USC, never led in his 1-up loss to Harrison Ott, while Cal's Morikawa lost to another Vanderbilt player, John Augenstein, in 19 holes.

Englishman Matthew Jordan is the fourth-ranked player in the world, but he didn’t make the 36-hole stroke-play cut.

The highest-ranked player remaining is Oklahoma State junior Viktor Hovland, who is ranked fifth. With his college coach, Alan Bratton, on the bag, Hovland beat his Cowboys teammate, Hayden Wood, 3 and 2, to reach the Round of 32.

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Fiery Augenstein outduels Morikawa at U.S. Amateur

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 12:55 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Around the Vanderbilt golf team John Augenstein’s nickname is “Flash,” and it’s easy to see why.

The swing loaded with speed.

The on-course charisma.

The big shot in the big moment.

The Commodores junior added another highlight to his growing collection Wednesday, when he defeated world No. 3 Collin Morikawa in 19 holes during a Round of 64 match at the U.S. Amateur.

Out of sorts early at Pebble Beach, Augenstein was 2 down to Morikawa after butchering the short seventh and then misplaying a shot around the green on 8.

Standing on the ninth tee, he turned to Vanderbilt assistant coach/caddie Gator Todd: "I need to play the best 10 holes of my life to beat Collin."

And did he?

“I don’t know,” he said later, smirking, “but I did enough.”

Augenstein won the ninth hole after Morikawa dumped his approach shot into the hazard, drained a 30-footer on 10 to square the match and then took his first lead when he rolled in a 10-footer on 14.

One down with three holes to go, Morikawa stuffed his approach into 16 while Augenstein, trying to play a perfect shot, misjudged the wind and left himself in a difficult position, short and right of the green. Augenstein appeared visibly frustrated once he found his ball, buried in the thick ryegrass short of the green. He told Todd that he didn’t think he’d be able to get inside of Morikawa’s shot about 6 feet away, but he dumped his pitch shot onto the front edge, rode the slope and trickled it into the cup for an unlikely birdie.

“Come on!” he yelled, high-fiving Todd and tossing his wedge at his bag.

“It was beautiful,” Todd said. “I’m not sure how he did that, but pretty cool that it went in.”  


U.S. Amateur: Articles, photos and videos


Morikawa answered by making birdie, then won the 17th with a par before both players halved the home hole with birdies.

On the first extra hole, Augenstein hit his approach to 15 feet while Morikawa left it short. Morikawa raced his first putt by 6 feet and then missed the comebacker to lose the match.

It may not have been the best 10-hole stretch of Augenstein’s career, but after that pep talk on 9 tee, he went 4 under to the house.

“He’s a fiery little dude,” Morikawa said of his 5-foot-8-inch opponent. “You don’t want to get him on the wrong side because you never know what’s going to happen. He’s not going to give shots away.”

The first-round match was a rematch of the Western Amateur quarterfinals two weeks ago, where Augenstein also won, that time by a 4-and-2 margin.

“It’s the most fun format and where I can be my true self – emotional and aggressive and beat people,” Augenstein said.

That’s what he did at the 2017 SECs, where he won the deciding points in both the semifinals and the finals. He starred again a few weeks later at the NCAA Championship, last season went 3-0 in SEC match play, and now has earned a reputation among his teammates as a primetime player.

“I’ve hit a lot of big shots and putts in my career,” said Augenstein, ranked 26th in the world after recently winning the Players Amateur. “I get locked in and focused, and there’s not a shot that I don’t think I can pull off. I’m not scared to fail.”

The comeback victory against Morikawa – a three-time winner last season at Cal and one of the best amateurs in the world – didn’t surprise Todd. He’s seen firsthand how explosive Augenstein can be on the course.

“He’s just fiery,” Todd said. “He does things under pressure that you’re not supposed to do. He’s just a special kid.”

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Fowler (oblique) withdraws from playoff opener

By Will GrayAugust 15, 2018, 8:44 pm

The injury that slowed Rickie Fowler at last week's PGA Championship will keep him out of the first event of the PGA Tour's postseason.

Fowler was reportedly hampered by an oblique injury at Bellerive Country Club, where he started the third round two shots off the lead but faded to a tie for 12th. He confirmed the injury Tuesday in an Instagram post, adding that an MRI revealed a partial tear to his right oblique muscle.

According to Fowler, the injury also affected him at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he tied for 17th. After receiving the test results, he opted to withdraw from The Northern Trust next week at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey.

"My team and I feel like it's best not to play next week in the Northern Trust," Fowler wrote. "I will be back healthy and competitive ASAP for the FedEx Cup and more than ready for the Ryder Cup!!!"

Fowler is one of eight players who earned automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team when the qualifying window closed last week. His next opportunity to tee it up would be at the 100-man Dell Technologies Championship, where Fowler won in 2015.

Fowler has 12 top-25 finishes in 18 starts, highlighted by runner-up finishes at both the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in the fall and at the Masters. He is currently 17th in the season-long points race, meaning that he's assured of starts in each of the first three playoff events regardless of performance and in good position to qualify for the 30-man Tour Championship for the fourth time in the last five years.

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Playoff streaks in jeopardy for Garcia, Haas

By Will GrayAugust 15, 2018, 8:12 pm

Since the advent of the FedExCup in 2007, only 13 players have managed to make the playoffs each and every year. But two of the PGA Tour's stalwarts head into the regular-season finale with work to do in order to remain a part of that select fraternity.

Sergio Garcia has rarely had to sweat the top-125 bubble, but the Spaniard enters this week's Wyndham Championship 131st in the current standings. Left with even more work to do is former FedExCup winner Bill Haas, who starts the week in Greensboro 150th.

Garcia got off to a strong start in the spring, sandwiching a pair of top-10 finishes in WGC events around a fourth-place showing at the Valspar Championship. But quality results largely dried up after Garcia missed the cut at the Masters; he has made only two cuts in 10 Tour starts since April, including early exits in all four majors.


Wyndham Championship: Articles, photos and videos


Garcia has some history at Sedgefield Country Club, having won this event in 2012 to break a lengthy U.S. victory drought. He also finished fourth in 2009 but hasn't played the Donald Ross layout since a T-29 finish as the defending champ in 2013.

It's been a difficult year for Haas both on and off the course, as the veteran was involved as a passenger in a car accident on the eve of the Genesis Open that killed the driver. He returned to action three weeks later in Tampa, and he tied for seventh at the RBC Heritage in April. But that remains his lone top-10 finish of the season. Haas has missed 11 cuts including three in a row.

While the bubble will be a fluid target this week at Sedgefield, Garcia likely needs at least a top-20 finish to move into the top 125 while Haas will likely need to finish inside the top 5.

One of the 13 playoff streaks is assured of ending next week, as Luke Donald has missed most of the year with a back injury. Other players to qualify for every Tour postseason include Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson, Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Justin Rose, Brandt Snedeker, Charles Howell III, Charley Hoffman and Ryan Moore.