FedEx Cup playoffs move on without Tiger

Tiger Woods at the BMW Championship.

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LEMONT, Ill. – Leave it to the PGA Tour to find the upside of Tiger Woods missing out on the Tour Championship.

In a press release Monday promoting the 30-man field at East Lake, it notes that Woods’ failure to qualify for the last playoff event guarantees there will be a new FedEx Cup champion this year.

Phil Mickelson said it “absolutely” will be strange not having the world’s No. 1 player at the Tour Championship, although it’s nothing new. Woods has only played East Lake twice in the past five years, skipping in 2006 after a long year coping with his father’s death and in 2008 when he was recovering from knee surgery.

The difference, of course, is that Woods couldn’t play the Tour Championship even if he wanted. He needed to shoot 65 in the final round of the BMW Championship, and it took him until the 17th hole just to get under par for the final round, and the tournament.

In an explanation he offered three times Sunday – to NBC Sports, XM Radio and the rest of the media – he blamed only himself.

“I didn’t play well in the beginning of the year and I didn’t play well in the middle of the year,” he said.

He said he is starting to play well now, but that only shows how far he had fallen. Woods tied 12th at The Barclays, tied for 11th at the Deutsche Bank Championship and tied for 15th at the BMW Championship.

Three straight weeks out of the top 10 used to be called a slump.

Now it’s called progress?

But there are other examples of Woods’ weird year on the golf course.

He has gone seven consecutive tournaments out of the top 10, the longest stretch of his career. His previous worst was five straight tournaments out of the top 10. That was in 2001, between victories at the Memorial and Firestone.

And to get an idea of how he is playing, just look at when he is playing.

Woods is typically among the last to arrive because he is in or close to the lead so often. This year, he has teed off before noon in the final round at eight of his 12 tournaments.

The exceptions were the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. The other tournament was Quail Hollow, where he didn’t make it to the final round after missing the cut with the highest 36-hole score of his career.

As he walked down the eighth hole at Firestone on Sunday, Woods could look to his left at the back nine that was empty. That’s never happened before. Then again, he’s never been the second group off on Sunday.

Another first came at Ridgewood in the opening playoff event. Because of his FedEx Cup ranking – No. 112 – Woods teed off so early that he was the first player to hit a shot in the tournament.

“That’s how far I’ve fallen,” he said, a rare glimpse of his self-deprecating humor.

On Saturday morning at Firestone, caddie Steve Williams saw a reporter and asked the whereabouts of another golf writer.

“I never thought this would happen,” came the reply, “but he actually has a later tee time today than Tiger.”

Should anyone find this the least bit shocking?

This is no time to take pity on Woods. He’s the one who created this mess he’s in. But only Woods knows what’s going on inside his head and with his swing.

He split with swing coach, Hank Haney, in May and spent the next three months working out the settlement in a split with his wife.

Woods appears ready to take on a new coach with a new concept. Previous swing changes have taken Woods some 18 months before he figures it all out. Even then, he still managed to win at least one tournament, threaten in a couple of others and have time to eat lunch before his final round, not after it.

Perhaps the only shock is that he’s still No. 1 in the world ranking. That’s as much a reflection of Mickelson, who has had 11 tournaments with a mathematical chance to take over. The next comes at the Tour Championship, and the scenario for Lefty to be No. 1 will not depend on Woods because he won’t be there.

They played together in the final round at Cog Hill for the first time all year, tied at even par. Mickelson was five shots ahead after seven holes, as Woods walked with his head down, not looking the least bit like he was having any fun.

Woods rarely does unless he’s winning.

“You can tell that his game is inches from turning because his speed is back and his putter looks great,” Mickelson said. “I mean, his game is not far off at all. It looks very close to being right there.”

That’s another measure of how far Woods has fallen – his biggest rival can only offer an encouraging word.

They might still meet again, though certainly not as a partnership at the Ryder Cup. That didn’t work even in good times. Mickelson is the defending champion in Shanghai at the HSBC Champions, where a year ago he took a two-shot lead into the final round and buried Woods.

For Woods, the HSBC Champions is more meaningful than ever. It will be his last chance this year for a PGA Tour victory (this World Golf Championship only counts as one if a PGA Tour member wins it). Woods has gone 14 consecutive seasons with at least one tour victory, three years away from the record held by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

And it’s not a streak that Woods can start over.

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