By Mike Blum
The 2011 major championships have belonged to players born outside the United States, but there are a number of prominent international players who have not exactly excelled on the PGA Tour this year.
The top 30 finishers in the 2011 FedExCup standings will qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake next month. With only a handful of FedExCup events remaining in the regular season, several of golf’s most successful international players were outside the top 125 on the points list, which would keep them out of the three Playoffs events leading up to the Tour Championship.
Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington and 2010 Players champion Tim Clark dropped out of the top 125 with only three weeks left in the regular season, joining a list that includes Ernie Els, Angel Cabrera, Louis Oosthuizen, Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson.
Players of note outside the top 125 at that stage included Americans Ben Curtis, Justin Leonard, Jason Bohn, Boo Weekley and David Duval, as well as Tiger Woods, who along with Clark has been sidelined by injury for most of the year.
Among those sitting close to the bubble was Alpharetta’s Heath Slocum, who serves as the best example of the importance of qualifying for the FedExCup Playoffs, even if you just sneak into the top 125.
Two years ago, Slocum finished the regular season 124th on the points list, then went out and won the first Playoffs event in New Jersey, edging the star-studded quartet of Woods, Els, Harrington and Steve Stricker by one shot each.
As was demonstrated last year, players near the bottom of the top 125 don’t need to win a Playoffs event to make a big move in the standings. Martin Laird and Kevin Streelman began the Playoffs ranked 95 and 102 respectively, but thanks to top-3 finishes in the Barclays, both made it to East Lake for the Tour Championship.
Laird, Streelman and Charley Hoffman, who won the Deutsche Bank Championship the following week, were the only three players who began the Playoffs lower than 41st on the points list to make it to East Lake. Five other players just outside the top 30 at the end of the regular season also qualified for the Tour Championship, with 22 players who were among the top 30 heading into the Playoffs retaining their spots.
Anthony Kim, 14th at the end of the regular season, was the highest ranked player who failed to qualify for the Tour Championship, missing the cut in the first two Playoffs events and barely cracking the top 50 in the third.
The way the points system has been set up, players are rewarded for either finishing close to the top of the standings in the regular season or posting a high finish or two in the three Playoffs events. The significant leaps in the standings last year by Laird and Streelman produced some discussion regarding the Playoffs points distribution, but as in team sports, performing well in the post-season trumps an otherwise lackluster showing during the regular season.
The FedExCup Playoffs begin Aug. 25 with The Barclays, which will be played this year at Plainfield CC, the fourth straight time the event has been held in New Jersey. The course is a classic Donald Ross design that has hosted a U.S. Amateur and U.S. Women’s Open, but like most courses of that era, is relatively short by modern standards (7,125 yards), with several short par 4s and at least two par 5s that will easily be reachable in two.
Matt Kuchar won last year at Ridgewood CC, the second straight Georgia resident to win the Playoffs opener. The Barclays will feature a 125-player field, with the top 100 in the points standings after the tournament qualifying for the second of three Playoffs events.
The Playoffs return to the Boston TPC for a ninth straight year, with the last four Deutsche Bank Championships part of the FedExCup Playoffs. Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Stricker were the first three Playoffs winners of the event, with Charley Hoffman shooting a final round 62 last year to win by five strokes with a 26-under 262 total.
This year’s Deutsche Bank Championship will again be played Labor Day weekend with a Monday finish. The top 70 in the standings after the tournament advance to the final Playoffs event.
After the Deutsche Bank Championship, the Playoffs take a week off before the BMW Championship, which will be played Sept. 15-18 at Cog Hill in Chicago. Cog Hill was the host course for the Western Open from 1991-2006, and will be site of a Playoffs event for the fourth time in five years.
Woods, who won the Western Open at Cog Hill three times, won two of the first three BMW Championships at the course, with Dustin Johnson edging out Paul Casey last year.
With a 70-player field, the tournament is the only one of the three Playoffs events which does not have a cut. The top 30 in the FedExCup standings move on to East Lake, with the points for each player re-set to a predetermined number, ensuring that no player will have the title wrapped up before the Tour Championship is played, as was the case with Singh in 2008.
The Tour Championship is scheduled for Sept. 22-25, with this year’s event the 11th played at East Lake, which has hosted the tournament on a permanent basis since 2004.
With no one having won more than two tournaments on the PGA Tour this year and two of the three major championship winners non-PGA Tour members, the leaders in the FedExCup standings are closely bunched, leaving plenty of players within range of the No. 1 spot heading to the Playoffs.
Two-time winners Nick Watney and Stricker were 1-2 in the standings with just a handful of events left on the regular season schedule. K.J. Choi, Mickelson and Luke Donald were in place to take over the top spot with a win before the final FedExCup event in Greensboro the week after the PGA Championship.
Kuchar was leading last year’s standings coming into the Tour Championship before being edged out by East Lake winner Jim Furyk. The former Georgia Tech standout is back in the top 10 again and was the highest ranked player among the non-winners in 2011, just ahead of Webb Simpson.
Only four of the top 20 in the rankings as of late July were winless this year, with Masters and U.S. Open runner-up Jason Day and frequent contender Johnson both inside the top 15.
Six Georgians were among the top 30 on the points list with four weeks left in the regular season, beginning with ex-Georgia Bulldog Bubba Watson, one of the four multiple champions, at No. 6 and Kuchar at No. 8.
Augusta native Charles Howell, who recently recorded there consecutive top-5 finishes, has moved up to 24th, with three of Kuchar’s fellow St. Simons Island residents also among the top 30.
Jonathan Byrd, who has a win and a playoff loss to former Clemson teammate Lucas Glover, was 17th, with rookie Chris Kirk jumping up to 27th after his victory last month in Mississippi. Zach Johnson was right on the number in 30th with a string of strong showings over the past few months.
Along with Kirk, the biggest mover in recent weeks is Warner Robins native and former Savannah assistant professional Kris Blanks, whose playoff loss in the Canadian Open vaulted him from 116th to 54th.
Seven more Georgians were between 65 and 90 in the rankings, starting with Stewart Cink, who has not played up to his usual standards and was just inside the top 70. Fellow ex-Georgia Tech golfer Cameron Tringale, in just his second season on tour, has played consistently excellent golf since the Masters and was on the verge of passing Cink in the standings.
Former UGA golfer Ryuji Imada and ex-Tech player Troy Matteson were also right around 70th, with veteran Davis Love showing some strong recent form and moving into the top 80.
Blake Adams, a second-year PGA Tour player from Eatonton, and Bryce Molder, Kuchar’s Georgia Tech teammate, were inside the top 90 and assured of a start in the Barclays. Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor, who has struggled through the poorest of his eight seasons on tour, was just outside the top 100.
This season has also been the worst in Slocum’s 10-year career, and at 123 he was in real danger of not getting a similar opportunity as in 2009, when he just made it into the field before winning the Barclays.
Like Taylor and Slocum, Acworth’s Jason Bohn is suffering through a season he’d just as soon forget, and has almost no chance of making the playoffs. That also applies to David Duval, who has missed one cut after another after a fairly promising start to the 2011 season.