Furyk again finds the key to East Lake in its fairways

September 21, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

ATLANTA -- Jim Furyk's Friday at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola began in a familiar place -- the middle of the first fairway, 275 yards from the tee. No news there. Seeing Furyk in the heart of a fairway on the PGA TOUR is about as rare as a sunburned tourist on South Beach.

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And as Furyk stood there at East Lake Golf Club's opening hole, waiting for the twosome in front to putt out, conversing with his caddie Mike Cowan about which club to hit into the sloping green, there was another familiar sight for Furyk to take in. That would be the space between his drive and -- 37 yards up ahead -- that of his fellow competitor Bubba Watson. Both players hit their approaches on the green, both made their putts for birdie.

So, what's the point of this little vignette? Consider it a prism through which to look at both the second round of the finale of the FedExCup Playoffs and the remaining 36 holes.

You can thrive at East Lake hitting it as short as Furyk (166th on TOUR in driving distance) or as long as booming Bubba Watson, the current Duke of Distance, No. 1 with a 315-yard average drive. But if you don't drive it in the fairway? You can kiss the FedExCup and the TOUR Championship trophies goodbye.

Furyk, 42, knows all about this. In 2010, he won both the TOUR Championship and the FedExCup, capping a three-victory season that was arguably his best in a stellar career that began in 1994. His birdie from the fairway at No. 1 started a stunning string of seven straight 3s, was his first of nine birdies in a round of 64, and gave him a 1-stroke lead over Justin Rose (68) and two strokes over Watson (66) and Bo Van Pelt (68) and three over Matt Kuchar (69) and Dustin Johnson (67).

Tied for seventh are long hitters Rory McIlroy (68) and Robert Garrigus (69) and Zach Johnson (69).

When Furyk is asked why the 105-year-old gem that is East Lake provides and equal chance to short hitters like him, Kuchar and Zach Johnson and long hitters like Tiger Woods, who won 2007 FedexCup and TOUR Championship exacta, Dustin Johnson, McIlroy and Garrigus, he is quick to answer.

Playoffs update
ROUND 2 MOVEMENT: Rory McIlroy is halfway home at East Lake but Jim Furyk is hot on his heels. Update

"I heard a comment from Rory yesterday saying that, you know, you've got to get the ball on the fairway." said Furyk. "If you don't, life's tough."

Woods found out just how tough. He missed three fairways a side on Friday and shot a 73 that was seven strokes higher than his opening round.

Burt Furyk, who hit 10 fairways -- an improvement of four over his opening round -- peppered the flagsticks on the front side. His average distance from the hole on approach shots was 11 1/2 feet, easily the best in the field. Which is why he was leading and smiling, even in the face of a bogey at the 18th hole. The key is simple; opening the vault is hard.

"It's about putting the ball on the fairway," Furyk said. "Very tight fairways, and once you're in the fairway, it's half the battle. The greens are quite severe, and there are difficult pin placements where you have to keep the ball below the pin, and you can't always do that.

"It's basically putting the ball on the fairway," he repeated, one more time for emphasis, and added, "Crisp iron play."

This is why the leaderboard is sprinkled with bombers and medium-to-short drivers of the ball. Van Pelt (26th on TOUR at 296 yards) and Rose (T-85th at 290) are medium length. Kuchar (T-125th at 286) and Zach Johnson (T-162nd at 281 yards) are, like Furyk, shorter hitters, and Dustin Johnson and McIlroy (T-5th at 309 yards) and Garrigus (4th at 310) are extremely long.

None of the bombers near the top of the board are straight hitters. Garrigus (ranked 154th in driving accuracy) misses the most fairways, followed by Dustin Johnson (149th), and McIlroy (142nd). But all have been strong enough this week -- so far -- to escape the thin and tangly Bermuda rough, which can produce an assortment of fliers or chunked shots.

Watson seemed surprised and happy to be where he is.

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"This golf course and me don't see eye to eye," said the Masters champion. "I've never played good here. My best finish here was 22nd, 23rd maybe. Stringing two rounds together is pretty good. Looking forward to the weekend."

Watson said he is hoping he learned from the 64 he shot in the second round here last year, but isn't so sure. "It's still a hard golf course for me, just because of the grass and the way I swing at the ball. I catch a lot of fliers."

Long hitters always have a puncher's chance. And short hitters, especially those who are as straight off the tee as a, well, teetotaler, can be deadly when they're hitting their irons the way Furyk is. It's a difficult call. Everybody still has a chance, and Furyk -- who vaulted from 18th in the FedExCup points to a projected 2nd -- has a very positive outlook at East Lake, from tees to sloping greens.

"I grew up on greens that have a lot of slope to them," he said. "So hitting a 20-foot putt with a 5-foot break, I grew up with that. Laying the ball out there way to the right and feeding into the hole?"

He grew up with that, too.

"So I feel like those things that are needed at this golf course are pretty good strengths of mine when I'm playing well."

He's playing well. He has plenty of motivation to draw from after near-misses at the Transitions, the U.S. Open and the WGC-Bridgestone this year. Halfway there, he's in the middle of the fairway with a 9-iron.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.