ATLANTA, GEORGIA | Tim Finchem is a witch. There is no other possible explanation for the kind of seven-ways-to-Sunday luck the commissioner and his Tour have experienced in recent days, a straight-flush run that culminated on Sunday with a sudden-death playoff on a beautiful golf course in perfect weather for $11.44 million.
You couldn’t have scripted it better, a winner-take-all slugfest for The Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup, a playoff that included a ricochet off the grandstands, gutsy par putts ranging from two to 10 feet, and a splashy wedge shot from the lake where Bobby Jones and Alexa Sterling learned to fish with cane poles as children.
Even other players ran out of the clubhouse to see it. Bubba Watson barely made it in time to see Billy Haas win the playoff, the money, and two nice trophies for the tournament and the FedEx Cup. Haas did it by beating Hunter Mahan with three adventurous pars, two on the par-3 18th, and one on the par-4 17th. The one at 17 included the shot of the year, a wedge from a semi-submerged lie in the east lake of East Lake that stopped three feet from the hole.
“(The approach shot) barely missed the pin and barely rolled off,” Haas said. “I heard the people on 18 groan and I thought that can’t be in the water. My brother caddying was like, yeah, I think it is. I was like, well, there it goes. We get up there and I see the ball, and that’s when I say in my head, I have a shot. I don’t know how it came out perfectly like that. I can’t say the word fortunate or lucky or whatever enough.”
But the real luck belongs to Finchem, who stood above the final green watching the action like a grinning pasha, knowing how wrong things could have gone, and how right they ended up. The commissioner got a great champion, the humble son of one the game’s nicest men, Jay Haas.
Then, of course, there were all the things that could have happened. Aaron Baddeley unwittingly knocked the FedEx Cup out of two players’ hands by two-putting the last green. Webb Simpson would have won, despite shooting a final-round 73 and finishing 22nd in the tournament, if Baddeley had birdied 18 and won the playoff. Luke Donald would have won the big prize if Baddeley and Mahan had both made bogey.
“That’s what the FedEx Cup wants,” said Simpson’s caddie, Paul Tesori. “They want us to be in 22nd place and be nervous. And we were.”
Sure, there were a few grumblings. Mahan said, “It’s kind of sad for The Tour Championship in a way because it kind of gets lost. This is, really, one of the most prestigious tournaments of the year. It’s 30 of the best players in the world playing this week, and the only thing people are concerned about is the FedEx Cup.”
Of course he said that before he was in the playoff for both titles and the biggest payday in the game.
For the first time since its inception, there was more praise than criticism for the process. Phil Mickelson, who finished 10th in The Tour Championship and 15th in the FedEx Cup, said, “The last two years no one can question that it has been exciting, because it has come down to the last day. And from a player’s perspective it’s great because it rewards good play. Now, from a viewer’s standpoint, I’d love to see it simplified, but I don’t know what you would do to fix that.”
Granted, the scenarios got a little convoluted at times, and the iPhone app, which the Tour launched with great fanfare as a way for fans to keep up with the standings, was no help. But those are minor and easily correctable quibbles, especially given the thrilling way the tournament ended.
Because of that ending, as lucky as it was, don’t be surprised if the FedEx Cup is renewed for another run despite the unfortunate optics of golfers playing for a $10 million bonus when real unemployment is in double digits and FedEx, the sugar daddy that pays for it all, just cut its full-year profit forecast and saw its biggest drop in two-and-a-half years. Finchem seems impervious to such news, especially after signing a nine-year renewal of the Tour’s television agreement at a time when the game has no dominant player, no notable rivalries, and, in Finchem’s own words, “total parity.”
“If you go back in golf and look at any tournament, go back to Tom Morris, however far you want to go back, there is a graduation of stature in any event that rides with the extent to which the players prioritize that event,” Finchem said. “And there have been very clear signs of how the importance to players has grown with the FedEx Cup.”
Fan appreciation has grown as well. But then, three holes of sudden death for 11.44 million will often have that effect.