Early drama, uncertainty will lead to an outstanding FedExCup Playoffs

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Woods nearly forces playoff at Liberty National

In the final round of The Barclays, Tiger Woods hits a 26-foot putt from off the green on the par-4 18th hole to 3 inches and taps for par.

A lot of ingredients go into creating a truly memorable postseason playoff. To see them all at once, punch 1969 into the way-back machine for the seminal game that ushered in the NFL-AFL merger and defined the Super Bowl as America’s most-watched game for the ensuing four-and-a-half decades.

The key element in the New York Jets still-shocking 16-7 win over the 18-point-favorite Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III was simple but crucial: the top came up big under enormous pressure. On the massive stage under the glaring spotlight, they brought their best and beat the best.

On Sunday, way across time and the Hudson River from New York City, in a totally different sport and a very different arena, something similar happened at The Barclays.

The FedExCup Playoffs came of age. The best players showed their best stuff and if the extraordinarily high level of play at Liberty National Golf Club and intense competition are indicators of what’s in store for the remaining three events, then professional golf’s season-ending show has finally reached the level envisioned seven years ago. Without question, the Playoffs are off to their best start yet.

Okay, so new Barclays champion, Adam Scott, didn’t go all Broadway Joe Namath on everybody and guarantee a sweep of the remaining three events and the $10 million bonus that goes with the FedExCup. But the soft-spoken Scott, who earlier this season became the first Aussie to win the Masters, did ratchet-up his formidable game and charge to a bogey-free 66, roaring from 16th place to the top with a score of 11-under 273 that survived a late assault by the strongest group of contenders in Playoff history.

Reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose had a putt to force a playoff at the 18th, but it skittered past the hole. No. 1-ranked Tiger Woods, brought to his knees by back spasms in the 13th fairway only to get up and birdie two of the last three, also had a putt to tie from just off the green at the 18th .

After shooting a 65 that put him at 9-under and in the clubhouse lead more than three hours ahead of the leaders, reigning British Open champion Phil Mickelson shook his head over his lone bogey at the 18th hole, and accurately foresaw what was coming.

“I do believe, had I made one or two coming in, the course, with the wind picking up, it might have had a chance,” he said. “But giving one back on the last, looks like I can probably head out of here early.”

Exactly. The number would be 11-under and it would become elusive in a freshening breeze that put fire in the greens and turned up the heat on the leaders. Casualties included the usually-unflappable Matt Kuchar, who fell from a share of the lead at the ninth hole after a drive dove left into the water to set up a triple-bogey that began a slide of four more bogeys on the back. Kevin Chappell, who shot a course-record 62 on Saturday, took sole possession of the lead at 13-under with a birdie at the 10th but was derailed by a double-bogey at the 11th and three more bogeys and a double after that.

While all this, Scott was up ahead birdieing 16th hole and parring in to post the number that the best players in the game were not going to match, try though they might. A few words about Woods are in order, mainly for the way he managed to finish with his back seized up.

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He originally felt it tightening after his tee shot at No. 2. As he was hitting his second with a 5-wood into the 13th hole, the back went into spasm, resulting in a vicious pull hook, maybe 50 yards left of the green into a water hazard. Woods literally went down on hands and knees in the fairway, grimacing. As painful as it must have been to know where he had just hit his ball, finishing the round would hurt more.

Hate to be self-referential, but I’ve had a herniated disk at L-5, S-1 for the past 30 years. It can seize up with or without warning. When it goes into spasm it can make you crawl.

Woods got up, finished the par-five hole with a bogey, bogeyed the 15th after missing the green and taking 3 from the edge, and needed to birdie the final three holes to tie. He almost pulled it off, birdieing the 16th and 17th.

His putt at 18 wound up demonstrating just how thin and sharp is the edge of the razor that now separates all the top players in the world. It was dead on line all the way.

“Thought I made it,” Woods said. “It was a little double breaker and I thought I poured it.”

His ball stopped one turn from going in. Whether he will be able to pick up next week where he left off on Sunday after the tie for second with Rose, Canadian ball-striking machine Graham DeLaet and a resurgent Gary Woodland is up in the air.

Much as the folks at Deutsche Bank might not like to think of it this way, a little uncertainty is not a bad thing for the Playoffs. If Woods is able to play, great. His lead in the FedExCup points race shrunk to just 162 points over Scott, who picked up 2,500 with the win. Even if he is unable to play at Deutsche Bank, if Woods returned for the BMW Championship three weeks hence, he would be unlikely to fall out of the top five players going into the finale at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola in Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club.

All of that, of course, depends on how the formidable array of players below him in the standings fare at TPC Boston. As competitive as they all are, they would no doubt want to see Woods healthy and ready to play. But, either way, they are ready to go, and that in itself adds more than a little intrigue going forward in these intense Playoffs.

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