By Mike Blum
The 2012 Tour Championship will have something this year it’s had only twice since 2005, and hasn’t had at all the last two years.
Woods has played at East Lake just twice since 2005, winning in record-shattering fashion in 2007 and finishing as runner-up for the second time in the event toPhil Mickelson in ’09.
The Tour Championship has been a Tiger-free zone each of the last two years. Woods failed to qualify for the Playoffs finale in 2010 and didn’t make it into any of the Playoffs events last year.
Woods was unable to defend his Tour Championship title due to injury in 2008, and simply elected not to play in Atlanta in ’06, which played a role in the decision by the PGA Tour to institute the Playoffs system the next year.
The Tour Championship will also have another player of note making his first-ever appearance in the event. Rory McIlroy, golf’s No. 1-ranked player, will be making his first start at East Lake when the tournament begins Sept. 20.
Woods and McIlroy will come into the Tour Championship as two of the leaders in the FedExCup points standings, with almost all the PGA Tour’s most prominent names expected to join them in the elite 30-player field.
Among them is Mickelson, the only two-time winner at East Lake, which will be hosting the Tour Championship for the 12th time. A win in the tournament, which concludes Sept. 23, will give Mickelson a third three-peat of professional tournaments in Georgia.
Mickelson has three Masters titles, three victories in the late and lamented BellSouth Classic, and also won three consecutive times as a junior in the Rolex Tournament of Champions when the event was played at Roswell’s Horseshoe Bend in the late 1980s.
In each of his two wins at East Lake, Mickelson out-dueled Woods, beating him by two shots in 2000 and by three in ’09, the last time Woods played here. Mickelson just missed what could have been a third Tour Championship title in ’08, finishing one shot out of a playoff.
Woods also could have more than just his one victory at East Lake. He has finished second four times in Atlanta, including consecutive runner-up finishes in 2004 and ’05. In his last four starts at East Lake, Woods has a win and three seconds.
In addition to determining who will win the FedExCup this year, the Tour Championship will likely go a long way to deciding Player of the Year honors.
With three wins, including the PGA Championship and Playoffs event in Boston, and two runner-up finishes in high profile events, McIlroy has the edge for that honor. But a win at East Lake could shift the advantage to Woods, who also has three wins this season and was a close 3rd in Boston.
After three years when the FedExCup champion was mostly a foregone conclusion coming into East Lake, 2010 and ’11 produced considerable drama, both in regards to the tournament itself as well as the FedExCup.
Jim Furyk produced a clutch par in the rain on East Lake’s demanding par-3 18th hole to edge Luke Donald by a shot in 2010 and take the FedExCup title over Donald and Matt Kuchar.
Donald was also a factor last year, finishing one shot out of a playoff for the second straight year as well as again placing third in the FedExCup standings. The playoff, the third at East Lake, also proved to be the most dramatic, with Bill Haas wading into East Lake’s lake for his memorable par save at the 17th before closing out his victory over Hunter Mahan with a par at the 18th.
Haas came into the BMW Championship 29th on the points list, needing a solid showing at Crooked Stick to avoid the same fate as the previous four FedExCup champions. None of them competed in the Tour Championship the year after taking home the $10,000,000 check. Woods was sidelined by injury in ’08 and joined Vijay Singh and Furyk in not qualifying for the Tour Championship on merit two years later.
After missing out on East Lake last year, Furyk will be back, locking up a spot in Boston along with Adam Scott, the 2006 Tour Championship winner Scott was one of several prominent players who began the Playoffs outside the top 30 but moved up with strong showings in either New York or Boston.
Sergio Garcia (T3 in the Barclays) and Louis Oosthuizen (2nd by one to McIlroy in Boston) joined Scott in improving their position after starting just outside the top 30, with Lee Westwood moving up from 51 to 23 with finishes of 5th and 13th.
Nick Watney, who was 49th entering the playoffs, and Brandt Snedeker locked up spots at East Lake by finish 1-2 in the Barclays, and join a star-studded group of players who will be among the 30 qualifying for the Tour Championship.
St. Simons Island residents Kuchar and Zach Johnson will be in the field along with Masters champion and ex-Georgia Bulldog Bubba Watson. Keegan Bradley, who won the 2011 PGA Championship last year at Atlanta Athletic Club, will make his second appearance in the Tour Championship, as will Jason Dufner, who lost in a playoff to Bradley at AAC.
Others who have punched their tickets for Atlanta are Dustin Johnson, Carl Pettersson, 2011 runner-up Mahan, Donald, Steve Stricker, Mickelson, British Open champion Ernie Els, Rickie Fowler and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson.
With so many of the game’s prime time players already in, there were not that many of the PGA Tour’s elite on the bubble heading to Crooked Stick.
Graeme McDowell (41), Ian Poulter (48) and Singh (49) were the biggest names inside the top 50, with former Georgia Tech golfers Bryce Molder (45) andTroy Matteson (59) and ex-Georgia Bulldogs Brian Harman (51) and Chris Kirk (66). moving up to make it to the third event of the Playoffs.
Harman vaulted from 97 to 41 after tying for 5th in the Barclays. Molder used a 9th place finish in the Deutsche Bank Championship to gain 48 spots. Matteson was 78 coming into Boston, with Kirk moving up from 81st after an interesting week.
Kirk was one out of the lead after an opening 63, but shot himself out of contention with a third round 75. Kirk was 5-over after 13 holes in the final round and outside the top 70, but birdied four of his last five holes to narrowly advance.
Roberto Castro, Harris English, Charles Howell, Jonathan Byrd, Cameron Tringale and Blake Adams all were eliminated in Boston. Byrd (47), Tringale (56) and Howell (59) began in good position, but all three struggled and did not come close to advancing to Indianapolis.
Castro, who began the Playoffs at 100 in the standings, needed a second round 67 in the Barclays to make the cut after an opening 76. A slam dunk hole-in-one on the 14th hole at Bethpage Black enabled him to make it to the weekend, with Kirk also scoring an ace that day. Castro advanced with a top-25 finish and was in position to move on past Boston, but a pair of late bogeys in the final round doomed his chances.
Davis Love, Heath Slocum and Jason Bohn were all eliminated after the Barclays, with Slocum (124) and Bohn (125) barely qualifying for the Playoffs.
East Lake has not been a particularly hospitable course to some of the PGA Tour’s bombers, with Watson and Dustin Johnson both failing to solve its puzzle in three appearances.
The same can be said for Kuchar, with Zach Johnson not having a stellar record at East Lake with the exception of a course record 60 he shot in 2007, before the club replaced its bent grass greens with a more heat tolerant modern strain of Bermuda that provides former surfaces for the tournament.
Since the change in the putting surfaces, East Lake has proven to be a more serious test for its 30-player fields. After four straight years in which the winning score was 11-under par or better, no one has broken 270 for 72 holes on the par-70 set-up used for the tournament.
Woods shot 23-under to win by eight strokes in 2007, two years after journeyman Bart Bryant lapped Woods by six with a 17-under 263 total. Since then, the winning totals have been 273, 271, 272 and 272, with two playoffs (2008 and ’11) and a one-stroke margin in 2010.
Power players like Woods, Mickelson, Scott and Camilo Villegas have won at East Lake, as have golfers known more for their ball-striking (Furyk, Bryant,Retief Goosen, Hal Sutton).
Even though holes 5 and 10 are converted from par 5s to par 4s for the tournament, East Lake has been stretched to more than 7,300 yards, with new back tees added in the past few years on several holes.
The back nine includes four par 4s of at least 470 yards, in addition to the 235-yard par-3 18th. The island green par-3 sixth has been stretched to more than 200 yards and is one of just a handful of holes at East Lake where water is in play for the game’s best players.
East Lake’s challenge is more a product of narrow fairways bordered by thick Bermuda rough and thin but pesky tree lines, and fast, firm, well-protected greens with healthy amounts of undulation.
From a spectator standpoint, East Lake is a mostly comfortable walk thanks to its compact nature (especially the back nine), although there are a few holes with significantly hilly terrain. Both nines offer spots where multiple holes can be viewed with minimal movement, but with Woods back in the field this year, spectators can expect slightly more crowded conditions, particularly around the featured pairings.