Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 30, 2010

Jim Furyk Gets $10 Million Worth Of Justice

In sports as in life, every great once in a while sweet synchronicity elbows its way in to the normally random chain of events. So it was last Sunday at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.

When the PGA Tour’s four tournament playoff series started the last Thursday in August, Jim Furyk was in 3rd place in the season-long standings. Having won twice in 2010, at the Transitions Championship in March and again at the Verizon Heritage at lovely Harbour Town in April; the 40-year old Furyk was having a fine year. Given his high ranking, he had to be considered one of the favorites to make a run at winning the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize.

But the morning before that tournament started, Furyk’s cell phone alarm failed to go off. Despite making a record dash from his hotel to the golf course, Furyk missed his starting time for the Wednesday pro-am round. As I wrote about at the time, under the rules of the PGA Tour Furyk was disqualified from the tournament. While he accepted the ruling with public stoicism as professional golfers are wont to do in such situations, Furyk had to have been steaming inside. There he was at the start of a four week campaign for a possible $10 million prize, and he was knocked entirely out of the first event without ever swinging a club. For missing a tee time at an exhibition! Some none-golfing friends of mine were quite candid in admitting they had a very hard time understanding the logic of the ruling.

Apparently PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem had an equally hard time, because shortly after Furyk’s disqualification he announced that the rule in question was being suspended for the balance of the year. Instead, any golfer missing a pro-am tee time would be required to join his amateur partners and complete the round, plus perform some additional unspecified sponsor activity. The Tour’s Policy Board is scheduled to review the rule and make a permanent decision on its fate in November.

Still, it seemed likely that for Jim Furyk the damage was done. By winning zero points at that first event, the Barclays Championship in New Jersey, he dropped to 8th in the standings. The following week at the Deutsche Bank Championship just south of Boston he finished tied for 37th place and a week later at the BMW Championship in the Chicago suburbs he wound up in a tie for 15th. Those so-so finishes dropped him further down the standings, so he came to the Tour Championship in 11th place in the race for the FedEx Cup.

But in fact it could have been worse. Those first three playoff events were all won by players who started out behind Furyk in the standings. Perhaps more important, none of the golfers who were at the top of the standings with Furyk when the playoffs began were performing particularly better than he was. As a result, while he slipped to 11th, he could find some relief in not having fallen farther.

In only its fourth year, the FedEx Cup format is still being tweaked by the PGA Tour. In 2008 Vijay Singh arrived at the final event of the playoffs needing only to avoid falling down and hurting himself in order to win the $10 million. After that debacle the rules were changed so that among the thirty golfers qualifying for the Tour Championship, points are reset prior to the start of the tournament. All thirty now have a mathematical chance of winning the ultimate prize. However only the top five are guaranteed that by winning this one tournament they will also win the season-long contest for the Cup. Golfers below the fifth spot need to both win and get some help in the form of players ahead of them in the standings having a bad week.

Furyk immediately set out to do his part, opening with a 3-under par 67 that left him in second place, just one stroke behind a trio of golfers. He followed that up on Friday with a 65, at the time the best round of the tournament. That left him at 8-under par and tied for the lead with Englishman Luke Donald going into the weekend.

In a certain sense the weekend belonged to Nick Watney. The 29-year old caught fire on Saturday, shooting a 63 that included a back nine score of 28. He followed that up with a 30 on the front nine on Sunday, thus shooting a 58 on the tough East Lake course over two days. He faltered with two late bogeys, but was still 10-under par for the weekend with his final round 67. Unfortunately, Watney was five over par going into the weekend, so his heroics were only enough to move him up to a tie for fourth.

As for the five golfers who knew that a victory at the Tour Championship guaranteed them the FedEx Cup, only Paul Casey came close, finishing tied with Watney three strokes out of the lead. Charley Hoffman finished five strokes behind, and Dustin Johnson, Steve Stricker and pre-tournament point’s leader Matt Kuchar finished far back in the pack.

All of which opened the door for Furyk. As the weather deteriorated through the weekend, the western Pennsylvania native kept grinding away. His even par round on Saturday kept him in the lead, one stroke ahead of Donald and South African Retief Goosen. Much of Sunday’s final round was played in a steady rain; and other than Watney no one on the first page of the leader board made much of a move.

When Furyk rolled in a birdie putt on the par-5 15th, he moved to 2-under for the day and 10-under for the tournament. He led by 3 shots with just 3 holes to play. But he bogeyed both 16 and 17, and came to the home hole just one clear of Donald. When his tee shot on the 230-yard par 3 sailed right and into a deep greenside bunker, the television announcers started describing the holes to be used for a sudden death playoff.

Coming into the tournament, Furyk ranked 157th on Tour in sand saves percentage, salvaging par from a greenside bunker less than half the time. That season-long performance would not have led one to expect that through 71 holes at East Lake, he would be a perfect 8 for 8 in sand saves.

Jim Furyk isn’t the best golfer on Tour. He’s not the longest hitter, nor the most accurate putter, and his idiosyncratic looping swing is anything but classic. But prior to Sunday he had won 15 times, including the 2003 U.S. Open. He was 6th in the World Golf Rankings, thanks as much to determination and grit as raw ability. I doubt very much that his sand saves percentage ever entered his mind as he walked down into that bunker, from which he couldn’t see the bottom of the flag stick. I’m pretty sure all that was on his mind was that he had to get up and down to win.

He flew the ball just short of the hole, and it rolled just past before spinning hard to a dead stop. One tap-in later and Furyk’s 16th PGA Tour victory won him the Tour Championship and with it, the 2010 FedEx Cup. He joins Tiger Woods in winning the Cup without playing in all four events; though he’ll readily admit that wasn’t exactly the plan. But every once in awhile, in sports as in life, the fates align and a little justice is done. Oh, and he’s now ranked 109th in sand saves.

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