Focus Returns to Tour Championship

Thursday, November 2nd 2006, 8:51 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ For those who are fed up with talk about the FedExCup, good news is on the way. The Tour Championship starts Thursday.

The season-ending tournament used to be one of the best perks on the PGA Tour, a showcase of the top 30 players on the money list, but it has been an afterthought for most of the week.

There has been more attention on who is not at East Lake _ namely, Tiger Woods _ than the 27 players chasing a $1.17 million prize. And even without Woods and Phil Mickelson in the field, much of the focus has been on next year and the FedExCup, the tour's new points race that starts next year and will pay $10 million in bonus money to the winner.

Then again, it's a peculiar field of ``All-Stars.''

Three players in the top 10 of the world ranking at East Lake have not even won this year on the PGA Tour _ Retief Goosen, Adam Scott and Ernie Els, who almost didn't qualify until saving par from 50 yards on the final hole last week at Innisbrook. Five others also see this as their last chance for the first victory of the year.

The No. 1 player in the field is Jim Furyk, even though he is No. 2 in the world and on the money list.

The field also includes 11 newcomers to the Tour Championship, most of whom are perplexed why Woods and Mickelson chose to take this week off.

``I think the biggest players have a responsibility to the tour to play in these,'' Arron Oberholser said. ``Tiger might not want to hear that, and Phil might not want to hear that, but they don't write my paycheck, so I don't care. I think it's about having a responsibility to your place in the game.''

On the other hand, Woods indirectly writes plenty of paychecks. It is his star power in the game that has caused exponential growth in prize money over the last three years. When Woods first played in the Tour Championship, the purse was $3 million. This year, the prize money is $6.5 million.

``You could say Tiger and Phil are hurting the tour by not coming to the Tour Championship,'' U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said. ``But where would the tour be without Tiger and Phil? We'd be playing for $2.5 million this week. We'd have 20 tournaments. And no one would be watching on TV. We'd be back where we were 15 years ago.''

One way or the other, their absence has drawn more attention than the tournament. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said he was disappointed by they were not at East Lake, although his thoughts were geared more toward next year at the FedExCup competition, which will end in September when the leaves are still green.

``I think players have an obligation to support the tour,'' Finchem said. ``But after this many years on the job, I think in the long term. I don't get hung up on one week.''

Woods cited fatigue for missing the Tour Championship for the first time. Returning from a nine-week absence after his father died, then missing the cut for the first time in a major, he won six of eight tournaments he played, lost the Ryder Cup and made a two-day trip to Ireland beforehand for practice.

Mickelson pours so much into the majors that he is exhauted by August. He stopped playing after the American Express Championship last year. This time, he stopped after the Ryder Cup.

``Phil was not a surprise to me,'' Finchem said. ``Now that I know the details of Tiger's thing from last week, I understand how he came to his conclusion. It doesn't make me less disappointed, but I understand how he got there.''

None of this matters to Els.

For all the talk about a black cloud hanging over East Lake, the Big Easy found plenty of sunshine as he worked quietly on the practice green late Wednesday afternoon, getting ready for the final PGA Tour event of the year and his last hope of getting to Kapalua for the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship.

``At least I've got a chance,'' he said. ``And it's a lot better when you only have to beat 26 guys.''

Davis Love III almost missed the Tour Championship until winning in Greensboro, and he was looking forward to one more big tournament. Then again, maybe that's the problem with the Tour Championship.

It used to be one of the big tournaments of the year, but now has lost some importance with so many other big events over the last 10 months. Including the majors, the PGA Tour had 13 tournaments with total prize money of at least $6 million this year.

``What I tell Tim and the staff all the time is they're a victim of their own success,'' Love said. ``The more big tournaments you get with big money, the more opportunities there are for guys to skip.''