sept13 battle for FedEx Cup

Published:

The final question was directed at Bobbi Maria.

"If you're dad wins the $10 million, is there anything you would like?'' she was asked.

Smiling at a room filled with reporters, she thought for a moment and shook her head.

"Good girl,'' Stricker said, patting her head.

That Stricker can even think about the $10 million deposit into a retirement fund is heady stuff, especially for a guy who didn't even have full PGA Tour status two years ago, and whose career earnings at the start of the 2007 season barely topped $10 million.

"I'm the underdog in this whole deal,'' Stricker said Wednesday at East Lake on the eve of the Tour Championship. "That kind of what this format has brought about - the ability for someone to come from nowhere to win this thing.''

This FedEx Cup format, which ends with the Tour Championship, also brought about the best in golf.

Tiger Woods, the No. 1 player in the world and No. 1 in the playoff standings, won the BMW Championship last week to give himself the best chance at claiming the inaugural FedEx Cup.

Phil Mickelson skipped the BMW Championship and hurt his chances by slipping to No. 3 in the standings. Even so, he could win the FedEx Cup with a victory at East Lake - provided Woods doesn't finish second alone - and Lefty has won at East Lake before.

Mickelson won the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston two weeks ago, while paired with Woods in the final round, no less. He is playing some of his best golf, and his rivalry with Woods always has been the most compelling.

"Let's face it, the FedEx Cup has been pretty blessed,'' NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said Wednesday. ``This didn't need to go down the way it did. It's really between three players, and it could have been between three players no one is interested in.''

Stricker is the spoiler at No. 2 in the standings. In some corners, that makes him the favorite.

"It's terrific,'' Mickelson said of the Stricker turnaround. "When people say it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, everybody means that. We're all pulling for him to do well - maybe me not so much this week - but all the other times, we're pulling for him. To see him back on top of his game and playing some incredible golf is fun.''

Those three have helped the FedEx Cup get off to a halfway decent start in its first year.

It began eight months ago in Hawaii with too much hype and equal parts skepticism. It ends at the Tour Championship, with no promotion needed and no big surprises.

Some might say the standings have validated the concept, for right behind the FedEx Cup's version of the ``Big Three'' are Rory Sabbatini and K.J. Choi, both of whom have been consistently in contention this year.

"I think it's been validated every week, every though the guys haven't played some of it,'' Stricker said, alluding to Woods and Mickelson each taking one week off. ``This is an event that Tiger and Phil have chosen to skip some of the previous years. We saw in every tournament the great fields ... and I think that shows you right there that it's working.

"Guys are wanting to play in this. They're trying to win it,'' Stricker added. ``Even though there's been a lot of criticism on both ends, players and the media, when you look back at these four events, I think it's been a success.''

Too bad he can't say that about the greens.

The course no longer is bursting with autumn colors because the Tour Championship has been moved from the last week of October to the third week in September. And the hot weather has severely damaged the greens, although not nearly to the extent that PGA Tour officials warned players last week.

"They're closer to good than bad, so I'll give them a 6,'' said Mark Calcavecchia, asked to grade the greens on a scale of 1 to 10. "I was expecting about a 2, to tell you the truth. And I kind of think that's what they wanted everyone to think so when we got here, we wouldn't be shocked. I think everyone is going to be slightly shocked that they're as decent as they are.''

They still have grass. Players have said they still roll smoothly. But because the greens nearly died and the root structure is weak, tour officials have said they would run at about 9 1/2 on the Stimpmeter, compared to a typical speed of 11 1/2.

The focus on Woods lately has been his swing.

Several players have noticed that Woods looks more upright with his stance, and it's impossible to ignore the results. Despite taking 32 putts in the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, Woods still only finished two shots behind. Last week at the BMW Championship, he only missed two fairways on the weekend and broke the tournament scoring record by five shots at 22-under 262.

"I wouldn't say more upright. I'm standing a little bit closer to it, so I think that gives the appearance of it,'' Woods said.

The change came after the British Open, where he tied for 12th, and noticed he was putting too much weight on his heels while trying to hit a low shot into the wind. He fixed his posture when he got home, and has been close to unbeatable ever since.

He was the only player under par at Firestone, then won his 13th career major at the PGA Championship a week later. Then came the playoffs, where Woods tied for second and picked up his 60th career victory.

Adding to the intrigue of East Lake, however, was that one runner-up finish to Mickelson.