Amplified by his pedestrian final-round showing at the BMW Championship on Monday, Tiger Woods has been anything but money during the first three events of the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Yet the world’s top-ranked player is still the odds-on favorite to cash a check for $10 million at the conclusion of the TOUR Championship on Sunday, with or without a victory.
Welcome to the PGA Tour’s confounding playoff system that has the potential to favor position over form when the championship is ultimately decided.
Tiger fired an even-par 71 in Monday’s rain-delayed final at Conway Farms and finished in a distant tie for 11th, seven shots behind winner Zach Johnson. Woods entered the final round trailing 54-hole leader Jim Furyk by just four shots, but never got anything going on the greens and faded out of contention early in his round.
That effort followed a tie for 65th at the Deutsche Bank Championship two weeks ago.
Woods reflected on his poor putting performance:
I think I had somewhere in the neighborhood of either five to seven three-putts this week. That's a lot. It was not a very good putting week. It's just one of those weeks where I just didn't have it.
If I quit eliminating the simple mistakes on the greens, I would have been all right. I would have been in there with a better chance. But I'm in good shape going into (this) week.
Despite those recent subpar performances, Tiger enters the season-ending TOUR Championship atop the FedEx Cup standings and in control of his own destiny, largely on the strength of his five PGA Tour victories.
If Woods wins at East Lake, he captures his third FedEx title and first since 2009 no matter what anyone else does. If he finishes near the lead and no other player among the top five of the FedEx Cup standings wins, he still likely gets the huge payday despite failing to win a single playoff event.
In fact, Tiger can finish as low as 29th in the 30-player field and still have an outside shot at winning the championship if things break his way.
That postseason position, however, is more about what he accomplished prior to the playoffs rather than his production since they began almost a month ago.
During the majority of the 2013 campaign, Woods has indeed been every bit the player his No. 1 ranking suggests he is.
Not only did he win five times, but two of the titles were World Golf Championship events. For just the second time in his career, he also took home the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass and has absolutely run away with the money title.
Yet since his last victory at the Bridgestone Invitational back in early August, Woods has been anything but the world’s best player.
In fact, outside of an injury-hampered tie for second at The Barclays, the first event of the FedEx Cup playoffs, he’s by and large been a postseason afterthought.
Along the way, Tiger has battled his driver, struggled to gain any momentum on the greens and has fought a balky back that nearly prevented him from finishing the first playoff tournament of the year at Liberty National back in late August.
It’s difficult, then, to reconcile those performances with the fact that Tiger is still the man to beat at East Lake this weekend.
Equally confounding is the fact that the 14-time major winner doesn't necessarily have to excel in the TOUR Championship to add a FedEx title to his huge 2013 haul.
That is, however, the nature of the PGA Tour’s postseason system that values regular-season play almost as much as playoff performance.
Outside of home-field advantage and potential byes, the slate is wiped clean when the playoffs begin in other major sports. The deck doesn't stack that way in the PGA Tour’s still-evolving playoff system that began in 2007, and it has been altered several times since in an effort to add more intrigue to the TOUR Championship.
To be fair, the past three FedEx Cup winners have all won the TOUR Championship to close the deal. That said, in 2009, Tiger took the $10 million at East Lake despite the fact that Phil Mickelson claimed the playoffs' final event.
It's a distinct possibility that history could repeat itself this year to Tiger's benefit once again.
Woods has a better chance of claiming the FedEx title over the three men—Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Adam Scott—who have actually won postseason events this year. Like Tiger, those three golfers, along with Matt Kuchar, control their own destiny, but they would need more help than the world No. 1 requires should they fail to win in Atlanta.
Even so, Tiger shouldn't apologize for his current position and deserves credit for overcoming health and performance issues to post a pair of top-15 finishes.
Should he capture his third FedEx Cup without winning at East Lake, he most certainly will not have been the best player during the tour’s season-ending chase for $10 million. He will, however, have been the best positioned, and that’s what the current system allows for.
"We control our destiny and go out there hopefully and win it," Woods said.
That is, in effect, the opportunity that Woods has afforded himself through an entire season of steady play.
Nevertheless, if he doesn't want to rely on the misfortune of others at East Lake, he’d better raise the bar on his postseason showing this weekend to seal the deal the old-fashioned way; by earning it.
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