Two weeks ago, on the Sunday morning of the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., Ernie Els admitted that he was nervous before he teed off. The Hall of Famer and three-time major championship winner was nervous about making it into the PGA Tour playoffs for the FedEx Cup. For all of his accomplishments worldwide, Els was feeling the heat. He responded, sort of, shooting 2 over par in the final round, gaining just enough FedEx Cup points to earn a spot at the Barclays. At the Barclays, Els finished 32nd and slipped just inside the top 100 to gain a spot in the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston. Ernie made it by 4 points – or less than a single shot.
Els enters the final round of today’s DBC tied for 19th and has a chance to pick up his first top-10 finish of the season. Again, he is the man on the bubble. In his current position, he is projected to finish 70th in FedEx Cup points and be the last man in the field at the BMW Championship that begins a week from Thursday. You can bet that Els will be feeling the anxious juices flowing today at the Deutsche Bank as well.
That is what the playoffs are all about. In the five-year history of the playoff system on the PGA Tour, there has been criticisms and naysayers. The point system has been altered and simplified, although it is still complex and a bit murky to the average golf fan. What is clear to fans, media members and especially the players is this: If a player plays well in the playoffs, there is more than just a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
In addition to the huge payday, the 30 players who make it to the Tour Championship in Atlanta are invited to the Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship next year. In other words, getting into the Tour Championship can nearly have as significant an impact on a player’s career as winning a PGA Tour event. For Els, of course, all of that means little. His world ranking (33rd) will ensure that he is in all the tournaments that he wants to play next year, including the Masters. But he is not in the Tour Championship, nor the BMW in two weeks, and for that, Els is grinding out his season.
By contrast, lesser-known William McGirt is ranked 382nd in the world. McGirt spent a nail-biting afternoon at the Wyndham Championship watching projections and finally learning nearly five hours after he finished his final round that he had made the playoffs. The PGA Tour rookie advanced to the Deutsche Bank by a single shot at the Barclays and he knew it. Well aware of where he needed to finish, he laid up off the tee on the drivable par-4 18th and made par. His tie for 24th moved him to 96th in FedEx Cup points.
McGirt still has a push to make to finish in the top 125 on the money list and become exempt on the PGA Tour for 2012. He currently stands 141st in earnings, roughly $160,000 behind David Mathis, who did not make the playoffs. McGirt could take care of his money-list woes and a lot more than that today outside Boston. He’s tied for 39th heading into the final round. It will take a low number for McGirt to advance to the BMW. He has beaten the odds so far in the playoffs, so it certainly could happen.
The one thing that had to happen five years ago when the PGA Tour playoffs crowned its first champion was that the players had to buy into the whole process. Conceptually, the playoffs were attractive and certainly the huge paydays were eye-opening, but now the players see this four-tournament series as an opportunity. For young players such as McGirt it is a chance to do more than solidify his place on the PGA Tour – the playoffs are a chance to change the trajectory of a career. For a veteran such as Els, these playoffs are an chance to turn around an otherwise lackluster year.
Remember Jim Furyk’s reaction a year ago when he holed the par putt on the final hole of the Tour Championship? With his hat on backwards to keep the raindrops from dripping off the bill, Furyk celebrated with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. But even the reigning champion has work to do to make it back to Atlanta. Jim entered the Deutsche Bank 60th in FedEx Cup points. He is just two shots off the lead heading into today.
For the players, these playoffs matter. Today will feature its fair share of drama as only 70 in the field will advance to Chicago. To survive puts a player one step closer to possibly changing his career. And someone is going to win $10 million. Nice work if you can get it, even if you have to do a bit of grinding along the way.