September 20, 2009

Five To Remember

A look back at five memorable moments in Tour Championship history

A tribute to Payne Stewart, who died days before the 1999 Tour Championship, was a definining moment in the event's history.

A tribute to Payne Stewart, who died days before the 1999 Tour Championship, was a definining moment in the event's history.

The PGA Tour needed a hook. Looking for a way to bolster television ratings and interest at the end of the golf season, the tour came to the realization it needed a tournament that provided some intrigue and drama in autumn.

Enter the Tour Championship, an event that was first called the Nabisco Championship when it debuted in 1987. The season-ending event gave the top 30 money winners the opportunity to cash in on their yearlong success, while also giving the tour the chance to showcase the best players in a dramatic battle for a $360,000 first place check.

The lucrative event was an instant success. The money on the line and the uncertainty regarding season-ending Player of the Year points added the intrigue and drama the tour had been coveting.

While the event has changed names over the years, the memories remain. From Zach Johnson's flirtation with 59 in 2007 to hurricane conditions at Southern Hills in 1995, the Tour Championship has created plenty of moments over the past 22 years. With that in mind, here are five of the more memorable moments in Tour Championship history:

Kite cashes in with playoff victory over Payne Stewart (1989)

The pain of losing a playoff in a tour event is a tough pill to swallow for any player. Throw in a then-record $360,000 first place check and that pain is only multiplied.

Tom Kite was on the wrong side of the record-setting Tour Championship payout in 1988. But when the opportunity to play extra holes presented itself a year later at the very same event, Kite was able to take advantage.

A final round three-under 68 at Harbour Town Golf Links got Kite into a playoff with Payne Stewart, then the leading money-winner on tour. After matching each other shot-for-shot on the first playoff, Kite finally found out what it was like to be on the other side of a record payday, as Stewart's four-and-a-half foot putt slid by the hole.

The $450,000 Kite won at the 1989 Tour Championship was enough to vault him past Stewart on the money list for the year, as well as give him enough points to capture the PGA of America's Player of the Year award. Additionally, his victory also made him the tour's all-time leading money-winner. Not bad for a week's work.

Sufferin' Hills comes out on top at Tour Championship (1995)

A total train wreck is probably the best way to describe the scene at the 1995 Tour Championship.

Rather than being rewarded for their yearlong hard work, the top 30 were instead treated to course conditions that had most wishing they'd stayed home.

Gusts of up to 40 mph and greens nearing pool table-like conditions turned the already daunting Tulsa, Okla., course into an almost impossible layout. "This tournament is supposed to be fun," claimed Brad Bryant in an interview during the 1995 event, "With the wind, it's not very fun."

Thursday's firm putting surfaces were so fast that officials decided to forego mowing them before Friday's second round. The very same conditions on Friday were not just a burden to the players in the field. A strong north wind also caused an ABC transmitter balloon to blow down into some trees.

Only 14 of the 120 rounds for the week were under par. And as a whole, the field shot a combined 322 over par, a total that was 157 shots higher than what the top 30 shot at the U.S. Open that year at Shinnecock Hills. In the end, 29-year-old Billy Mayfair's even-par 280 still stands as the highest winning score in Tour Championship history by six shots.

The tour remembers Payne Stewart (1999)

For all the fanfare and drama the Tour Championship had produced over the years, the 1999 event at Champions Golf Course in Houston, Texas, seemed like the least important tournament of the season -- and for good reason.

The death of Payne Stewart, one of the most influential golfers of the past 15 years, just three days earlier had turned the season-ending event into a somber affair.

With Thursday's first round in the books, Tim Finchem canceled Friday's second round, allowing all 29 players in the field the opportunity to fly to Orlando, Fla., for Stewart's memorial service.

For some, the event was one of the most difficult of their lives. Players said it would take months before they fully came to grips with the passing of one of the tour's most charismatic members. With the entire field wearing black ribbons in remembrance of Stewart, 24 of the 29 players decided to remember Stewart in a different way on Sunday, donning knickers -- a staple of his wardrobe -- to remember their friend.

At the end of the week, Tiger Woods once again came out on top. His victory at the event provided his seventh win for the season, the most since Johnny Miller won eight in 1974, and also allowed Woods to pass the $10 million marks in earning in just 69 professional events.

Phil Mickelson ends Tiger's 54-hole reign (2000)

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods gave golf fans the final round head-to-head drama they'd been looking for all season at the 2000 Tour Championship.

Woods, who already had nine wins on the season, was the prohibitive favorite going into the final round at East Lake. He had won 19-straight tournaments when leading or tied for the lead after 54 holes, so many figured Sunday's round was a foregone conclusion.

However, playing in the group behind Woods, Mickelson managed to surge ahead by two after the first nine holes. As the rest of the field faded, it became clear that the tournament would be Mickelson's to lose -- and this wasn't going to be one of those times where he was going to let the opportunity slip away.

Mickelson managed to stare down Tiger, and in the process ended his 54-hole streak. Still, while the win moved Mickelson's yearly earnings to $4.8 million, Woods had already surpassed the $10 million mark for the year -- making Lefty's win look more like a moral victory in the end.

Zach Johnson flirts with 59 at East Lake (2007)

It's hard to believe anything could be more nerve-wracking than standing over a putt to win the Masters and your first major championship, but apparently there is something: standing over a putt on the 18th hole at the Tour Championship on Saturday to get within six shots of the lead.

How is that possible? You'd need to get Zach Johnson to answer that one for you.

With Tiger Woods running away with the tournament after two days, players figured they would need to go low on Saturday and hope for a collapse of epic proportions from the top player in the game.

Soggy conditions at East Lake meant players like Johnson would need to have an once-in-a-lifetime round. So when he teed-off Saturday and proceeded to par his first two holes of the day, nobody figured he would be going for the course record.

But then Johnson birdied the third, fourth, sixth, and ninth holes to go out in 31. With everyone still paying little attention to his round, the Masters champion proceeded to birdie three of the first four holes on the back nine, before eagling the 15th, setting up a chance at 59 on the final hole.

Needing a birdie to become the fourth player in tour history to shoot 59, Johnson pushed his tee-shot on the par-3 18th into the bunker, settling for a par and course-record 10-under 60.

After the round, Johnson said his two-foot putt on the 18th was far from easy: "I was extremely nervous over that putt on 18," he admitted, "Even more than I was at Augusta, or any other tournament."