September 25, 2007

Watch Closely Or Wait Until January

The B-movie portion of the tour steps aside and The Presidents Cup takes center stage as the big boys step up for the last time this year

After a grueling August-September how much will the best players have left?

After a grueling August-September how much will the best players have left?

Now that Steve Flesch has established himself as the King of the B Movies, winning at Reno and Turning Stone, we can turn our attention to the other cup this year, the Presidents Cup. Not that the FedEx Cup was missed last week with football season in full swing, but that board in upstate New York, after Flesch, was a list of names right out of the agate from Boise.

What I'm saying is, there wasn't much difference between the talent playing for $6 million on the regular tour or for $675,000 in Idaho. In fact, it was like there were two Nationwide Tour events going on simultaneously, all by guys looking to play at big shows like the one being staged at Royal Montreal this week.

The Presidents Cup represents the last time this season -- or at least until the Target World Challenge in December -- when the best players in the world get together at the same venue. Tiger, Phil, Veej and Ernie, on NBC with the leaves turning in Canada, should be a pretty good curtain closer. There will be cash grabs in Asia and South Africa, pop-up cameos in the United States and around the globe wherever they're paying guarantees (Phil Mickelson, for the first time on back-to-back weeks in China) but for the most part, it's time to shut down this year.

To review: Between the majors, the World Golf Championship events, the FedEx Cup and oh yeah, the Players, there were 12 occasions this year when the best played against the best. In the final count of those events, Tiger Woods won five times (the PGA, the CA, the Bridgestone, the BMW and the Tour Championship), Phil Mickelson twice (Players and Deutsche Bank), with Henrik Stenson (Accenture), Zach Johnson (Masters), Angel Cabrera (U.S. Open), Padraig Harrington (British Open) Steve Stricker (Barclays) with one victory each. These tournaments, the Big Twelve for lack of a better name, represent one tour, the Superstar Tour.

Then there's a drop off to the next tier of tour events, a short list that includes Bay Hill, Wachovia and Memorial. After that, it comes down to Tiger events (Buick Invitational, AT&T National and maybe the Buick Open). These 17 or 18 events comprise the Tiger Tour. Beyond that, there is a problem, or at the very least, a monstrous vacuum that unsung Steve Flesch can't fill.

To quote PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, the FedEx Cup was supposed to do was make the regular season more "impactful," but try telling that to tournament directors in Palm Beach Gardens, Fl., Houston, New Orleans, Hartford, Dallas, Fort Worth, Memphis, and especially Greensboro, which played its way out of the Fall Series with a Wyndham sponsorship. Even Gary Planos at the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship, a virtual free ride at Kapalua to start the year, has no guarantee from Tiger, and an almost definite "no" on the commitment sheet from Mickelson. The tournaments all paid FedEx money at the latest contract negotiation. They didn't get the FedEx delivery.

On another level down from the Tiger Tour and the run of stock tour events is the Fall Series, a seven-event race for positions on the final money list that will determine what players fill out the fields in 2008. There are feel good stories here and along the way, a name player may pop up out of boredom or obligation. The starting times at the Texas Open and Las Vegas may be just as strong as they were in 2006, while who knows who's going to turn up for the new Ginn Classic in Port St. Lucie, Fla. David Duval is playing this week at the Viking Classic, a remake of the old Southern Farm Bureau and Deposit Guaranty Classic. Money horse Mark Calcavecchia said he might play the last four, including the new event in Scottsdale that promises to attract Mickelson.

As for the rant from the rank-and-file that they've been left out, treated like second-class citizens, it goes back to the old Jim Colbert quote at a player meeting in the early eighties. To all those whining about access, Colbert said, "Play better." The TV networks paid all those dollars for a meritocracy, not a democracy, but Finchem isn't as hard line; he bent over backwards to protect the workingman, with 144 in the first FedEx Cup event and some incredibly competitive purses totaling $32 million in the Fall Series.

I have a hard time feeling sorry for the guys complaining about the month off when a career grinder like Michael Allen can turn up in Verona, N.Y. on the third week of September and make $648,000 for finishing second. (That's only 40-grand less than Stricker made for finishing second to Tiger at Wachovia). And just like the old days, it's not about points any more, but about money, the top-125 and moving up the ladder of exemptions, hopefully into that top-30 stratosphere where the Fall Series is optional.

Flesch and Allen are the perfect examples of Finchem taking care of the little guy. After winning the opposite field event at Reno-Tahoe the week of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Flesch advanced through the first round of the playoffs but hit the wall after his ninth event in 10 week at the Deutsche Bank. Seventieth on the money list after a two-week break, his fourth career win and $1.06 million first-place check jumped him to 25th.

"I've come a long way in eight weeks," Flesch said. "Eight weeks ago, like I said in the award ceremony, I was fighting to keep my job out here. I wasn't playing great. Missing a lot of cuts by a shot. When I did make the cut I was shooting even par on the weekends and you're just waving guys by when that happens….I figure I've got four more events this year to secure my spot in that Top-30 and get in all the majors next year. That's my goal right now, get in those majors, because I haven't been in them for a couple of years and I really relish playing in them."

Allen, who spent a career surviving Q School, moved from 154th to 89th. At 48, he's locked in for 2008. "In a way I won the tournament already just finishing second, because for me that was enormous," Allen said.

On the other side of the tracks, The Presidents Cup is not about money or points, but pride. Although the United States has the four top players in the world, with Stricker sneaking into the No. 4 slot in the latest rankings, the International squad appears as talented at the top and much deeper at the bottom. It has to be considered that when players like Aaron Baddeley and Tim Clark can't make Gary Player's 12-man team. As Woods said on Tuesday, "I think we all know that the International Team is probably the strongest team that we face. They are stronger on paper generally than our team and generally than the European Team. To be on their squad, you have to be in the top 20 in the world; that's pretty impressive."

Unlike the Ryder Cup, which has ended in European blowouts the last two times it was staged, the Presidents Cup has come down to the last putt, or putts, in 2003 and 2005. Unless Rory Sabbatini stirs the pot, there is never the agro between sides like the Ryder Cup, and the golf has been stellar. The Chris DiMarco game-winner at RTJ, followed by the hug from captain Jack Nicklaus, and the Woods-Ernie Els duel in South Africa, were moments that validated the Presidents Cup as more than a Ryder Cup knockoff. Ernie and Retief Goosen thought enough to fly back from London, while Singh jetted back from China. And like the Europeans, the Internationals spot the Americans at least two beers a side in the team room.

Take a good look at Royal Montreal, because this is the last time we'll be seeing Woods unless it's in commercial form until the Target, a 2 ½-month decompression chamber when he'll get away from the game and regroup for next year. His win-win in Atlanta was the perfect stage exit, but there's one more week of work, at no pay, before he can garage the clubs and live on his boat. There will be no Tiger in Bermuda at the PGA Grand Slam, at those stops in Asia that he usually makes in November. He will be cruising the waters off Palm Beach, hanging out with Elin and Baby Sam, popping up with John Mayer at his Block Party in Anaheim and various other commitments, none involving the hitting of a golf ball or the making of a putt.

What's Tiger's interest in the Presidents Cup? It's politically incorrect to say, but for the guys who play on a cup team every year, and in spite of it being better than the Ryder Cup in many ways, the Presidents Cup is just one cup too many in an incredibly long run of tournaments that began at the British Open in July. Calc and Woody Austin excluded, asking the stars to play seven of nine with a week off before the Presidents Cup should have been a non-starter, but there aren't enough weeks in the year to make it work any other way. Even a gamer like Jim Furyk exited Atlanta feeling he had nothing left. All of this caused Nicklaus to crack at his news conference in Montreal, "Well, I think Gary and I, we got some of our players to skip some of those tournaments so they would be ready."

Behind the scenes, the schedule will be one of the copy points between Tiger and Tim this week at the U.S. team hotel. Finchem may have been asking Tiger to kiss the FedEx Cup at East Lake, but you saw the pregnant pause; the commissioner has no chance to get that image as long as there's this logjam of big events, or Tiger events, in August-September. Woods may have kissed the deposit slip when he got home to Isleworth and nobody was looking, but not when the cameras were clicking for the trophy shot in Atlanta.

Next year there is no one-week break after the Tour Championship. Joe Steranka, who runs the PGA of America, is probably more dissatisfied than Tiger is about that. He's already lost Woods for the Grand Slam. He probably won't lose him for the Ryder Cup next year in Louisville, but it won't be a very happy Tiger at Valhalla, certainly not the Tiger who is mentally and physically prepared to properly play his best golf.

And as we saw again this year, that's what golf needs:

Tiger playing his best golf.

Kissing trophies at majors.