A lot on the line, and a lot of scenarios Sunday at East Lake

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September 24, 2011
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correpsondents

ATLANTA -- Hunter Mahan could pull away from the pack on Sunday and win the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola by a healthy margin. Even with a dominant victory, though, he still might not win the FedExCup and its $10 million bonus.

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Shoot, by the time Mahan and co-leader Aaron Baddeley tee off at 1:50 p.m., the American might not even be projected No. 1 in the standings, which is where he finished the third round with a share of the lead at 9 under. A couple of birdies from Webb Simpson, who will have an hour's head start at East Lake, could totally change the outcome of the FedExCup race.

That's why Mahan and Baddeley -- and just about everyone else within striking distance -- would do well to focus on the TOUR Championship title on what will be a pressure-packed Sunday rather than obsessing about those FedExCup projections that will be reflected on every electronic leaderboard around the course.

"I'm not that good at math to actually figure out what everyone else would have to do," Mahan said with a shrug.

Maybe he could if he had gone to MIT instead of Oklahoma State -- and that's not a knock on the Cowboys. Maybe if Sir Issac Newton or Archimedes or Pythagoras (remember his Theorem?) had been reincarnated as a PGA TOUR pro he'd know the shot-by-shot ramifications on Sunday at East Lake.

Not now.

At the start of the week, there was a given. Any of the five players who ranked at the top of the FedExCup standings -- Simpson, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Matt Kuchar -- could win the $10 million with a victory in the TOUR Championship. Now only Donald, who starts the day tied for fifth and projected at the same number in the FedexCup, appears to have a chance to win.

"That's what my goal is still," the Englishman said. "I think only being three back, I've still got a great chance. And if I don't get off to a good start tomorrow, then I guess I'll be looking at potential where I am in the FedExCup. But until that time happens, I'll be pressing on to try and win."

The other 25 players who made the finale of the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup had a list of scenarios and what-ifs that would boggle the mind. Mahan, in fact, didn't even know that a scenario existed for him to win. But when four of the top five -- including the winners of the first three Playoffs events -- became human again, the other survivors suddenly had Cinderfella chances at golf's version of the NCAA's Big Dance.

"The way the guys were playing, Luke Donald, Webb, just so many guys up there that were playing really, really well, I didn't even think about them not playing well," said Mahan, who started the week No. 21. "So I just thought about trying to win the TOUR Championship. So that's the only thing I was concerned about."

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Projected points
The finale of the 2011 PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup continues at East Lake. To see how the points are shaking out through the third round of The TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola, click here.

Simpson, who has won two of his last four starts, acknowledged he expected more from himself and the other players ranked in the all-important top five. Even tied for 15th, though, the former Wake Forest All-American is still in contention -- granted, eight strokes from winning the TOUR Championship but just two away from the silver Tiffany FedExCup trophy and the $10 million prize.

"I thought going into the week that us who were in the top 5 were going to play a little better," Simpson said. "But I guess that's why it's the Playoffs; even the last tournament so many guys can have a chance to win. I think it's fun and exciting."

Mahan said he was "shocked" when NBC's Jimmy Roberts told him that he was projected No. 1 in the FedExCup when the third round was complete. His rise became possible, though, when players like himself and Baddeley, who came into the week ranked No. 27, vaulted up the leaderboard. In fact, of the 13 players within six strokes of the lead, only two ranked 10th or higher in the FedExCup at the start of the week.

At the same time, they have no guarantees like the top five had with a win at East Lake.

"I could play flawless golf tomorrow, win by five and finish fifth in FedExCup points," Mahan said. "... I might tee off tomorrow and be 10th. I don't know where I'll be. It's one of those things where it's like you can't even worry about it just because you can't do the math that fast. Someone makes a birdie -- Webb Simpson might make a birdie on 18 and it might be over, we don't know."

Baddeley, who fired the day's best round of 64 to settle into the tie at the top, has been similarly focused on the TOUR Championship -- but with a slightly different goal in mind. The young Aussie, who is currently projected at No. 3 in the FedExCUp, has been trying to earn one of Greg Norman's two Captain's Picks for the International Team at the Presidents Cup.

"My main focus is playing good so I can impress Greg and try to win a golf tournament," Baddeley said. "They're my two main focuses right now because ... so much has got to go my way to win the FedExCup. That's my focus right now is I want to be on that team at Royal Melbourne."

So far. So good. The rapidly changing scenarios may have actually made it easier for all concerned to focus on the task at hand. Play well, and there's a chance. All that changes late Sunday afternoon, though, as the action moves to the back nine and the reality of a $10 million deposit into their bank account creeps into not-to-idle minds.

"I don't think there's any way that they won't be thinking about it," said Steve Stricker, who has had his chances in Playoffs past. "It's just a different animal. ... It's ten times as much as we play for on a weekly basis for the winner's check. Plus if the guy wins the tournament, it's $11 million. No, it'll be coming into their minds quite a bit, I imagine, and it'll be tough."

And well worth the challenge.

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