Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 18, 2011

A New Generation Gets Ready For The PGA Tour Playoffs

This week’s PGA Tour stop, the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina is the last tournament of the Tour’s regular season. Starting next week at the Barclay’s the month-long FedEx Cup Playoffs begin, four tournaments with steadily diminishing fields culminating with the Tour Championship in Atlanta. For the Barclay’s in metropolitan New York, the field is limited to the top 125 players in the season-long FedEx Cup points standings. One week later, the Deutsche Bank Championship just south of Boston will welcome only the top 100. Then for the top 70 golfers in the standings it’s on to suburban Chicago and the BMW Championship two weeks later; and finally only the top 30 will travel to East Lake Golf Club for the Tour Championship.

Thus for players sitting near 125th place in the standings, and especially for those currently on the outside looking in, playing well this week is of vital importance. There are ten million reasons why every touring pro wants to make it into the playoffs, that being the bonus awarded on top of each tournament’s regular prize money to the player who ultimately finishes with the most points and wins the FedEx Cup.

That means that Camilo Villegas is walking the fairways at Sedgefield Country Club with a figurative target on his back. While the 29-year old star from Medellin, Colombia has won three times on Tour, including two of the playoff events in 2008, he has struggled this season. After making the cut in less than half his appearances, Villegas teed it up for the first round sitting in 125th place in the FedEx Cup race. He opened with an even par round of 70, and will have to improve upon that in order to make the cut and play this weekend. If he doesn’t do so he will almost certainly be facing a month of down time.

Among those chasing Villegas and hoping to get into the top 125 are plenty of big names. Major winners Ernie Els (126), Padraig Harrington (130), and Justin Leonard (142) are playing the Wyndham in hopes of doing well enough to move into the top 125 and gain a starting time for next week. To see the 41-year old Els outside the top 125 is especially jarring. The winner of two U.S. Opens and an Open Championship, he has consistently been in to top 30 since the Playoffs began in 2007, playing in all four events in each of the last four years. One year ago he was on top of the standings. But the Big Easy has struggled mightily with his putter this year. He ranks 190th in the Tour’s main putting statistic, and missed the cut at the last three majors. But for one day at least Els put those problems behind him, opening with a fine 65 that leaves him tied for 4th place, just two shots off the lead. For a day at least, that also moves him up to 109th in the points standings, though of course the standings that matter are those at the end of the tournament’s fourth round, not its first.

Like Els, Harrington, and Leonard, the biggest name of all in professional golf is also outside the top 125 but within striking distance given a good tournament. But Tiger Woods (129) isn’t in Greensboro, having effectively chosen to pass on this year’s Playoffs after shooting ten over par for two rounds and missing the cut at the PGA Championship by more than a long par-5. Despite the urging of many commentators and a good number of his fellow touring pros to play more as a way to gain familiarity with his rebuilt golf swing, Woods as usual seems determined to follow his own counsel. He’s expected to honor a contractual commitment to play in Australia in October, but other than that has given every indication that his 2011 schedule is done.

While much of the focus this week will understandably be on those fighting to either stay in or get into the top 125 on the points list, just doing that still leaves one a long way from the Tour Championship. What is most striking about the top of the standings is the amount of change that has taken place there as well. While performances both this week and through the first three Playoff events will reshape the final top 30, at the moment only twelve golfers who played in last year’s Tour Championship are in line to make the field this year.

In addition to Els and Villegas, those currently sitting outside the top 30 include the winner of last year’s Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup, 2010 Player of the Year Jim Furyk. He’s joined by the likes of Retief Goosen, Paul Casey, Zach Johnson, Justin Rose and Geoff Ogilvy, all of whom need to step up their play in order to move up in the standings and win a return trip to Atlanta.

In place of these familiar names are some that are less so, but only for the moment. They are the young golfers who are seen as the future of the PGA Tour, and who increasingly are turning that future into the present. At 22 Rickie Fowler has yet to win, but it feels like that could change any week. At 27 Gary Woodland is best-known for his prodigious length off the tee, but proved he has all the tools by winning at the Transitions Championship. At 29 Bill Haas is well on his way to becoming better known than his golfing father. At 26 Charl Schwartzel closed with four straight birdies to win the Masters last April. And at 25 Keegan Bradley just won the PGA Championship in stunning fashion. All of these young pros are currently in the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings and are likely to be in the field at the Tour Championship in late September. It is no stretch at all to imagine any one of them winning the $10 million bonus.

Tiger Woods left the PGA Championship saying “now I have nothing to do but work on my game.” As a new generation emerges on the PGA Tour, combining strength and finesse and playing utterly without fear, it looks more and more like Woods does indeed have a lot of work to do, just to keep up.

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