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Hunting In The Playoffs

The first 2014 FedEx Cup Playoff event at the Barclays Championship in Ridgewood, NJ was everything that the PGA Tour could have hoped for.  As Sunday’s final pairing of co-leaders, Jim Furyk and Jason Day made the turn to the final-9; there were 16 other players within 4 shots of their 11-under par lead.

The Barclays is the first of the four consecutive playoff tournaments.  Its field of 125 consists of those players who finished in that order on the PGA Tour’s season long contest.  After this week, that number is trimmed to the Top 100 for next week’s Deutsche Bank Championship and then to 70 the following week at the BMW, with a crescendo of a final 30, for the TOUR Championship.

Weight is given to points that a player has already accumulated, but the stakes are now raised considerably.  To put that into perspective, consider that the leader in points coming into the Barclays was Rory McIlroy (whose streak of 3 consecutive wins was derailed) garnering a season long 2,582 FedEx Cup points.  The winner of each of the first three playoff events wins 2,500 points which can change things very quickly.  There is a reset after the BMW which is supposed to allow players outside of the Top 5 in points to have a chance to still win, but they are longshots at best.  After all four events, a massive pool of 38 million dollars in bonus money is awarded with the winner getting the lion’s share of 10 million.

44-year old American star, Jim Furyk, has had a sensational season that is missing one key ingredient; a win.  Furyk has been a model of consistency with three runner-up finishes in 2014 coupled with three other Top 5’s and a fistful of Top 10’s.  As the 6th ranked player in the world, Furyk is the highest ranked American player in the Rolex World rankings, but he has been absent from the winner’s circle since his 3-win season in 2010 when he was also the FedEx Cup Champion.  It would be sadly, a familiar Sunday for Furyk as he stumbled home with a 1-under par 70 that saw him fall to 8th place.

A veteran player making a charge on Sunday was South African, Ernie Els, who put together an elegant 5-under par, 66 that vaulted him to 11-under par.  Minutes later, long-hitting American, William McGirt, would match Els with a 66 of his own and an 11-under total.

But at the time, the player making the day’s biggest move was 43-year old Australian, Stuart Appleby, who fashioned a back-9 barrage of birdies to close with a 6–under par, 65, and a 4-day total of 12-under.  Appleby has won 9 times in his career on the PGA Tour and has played for International team in 5 Presidents’ Cup teams, but has been largely in golf’s wilderness during the last 4 years.  Always a superb ball striker, Appleby has been plagued by an uncooperative putter and a loss of confidence, before showing glimpses of form in 2014 and entering this week at 98th on the points list.

When Appleby made a par-4 on his closing hole, he overtook Els and McGirt as the leader at 12-under, but two young Americans were throwing their names into the hat.  Birthday boy, Cameron Tringale celebrated his 27th birthday with a 66 to accompany Appleby at 12-under before Hunter Mahan upstaged that with a torrid stretch of 5 birdies in 7 holes ensuing, him a three shot cushion at 15-under par as he teed off on his final hole.

The 32-year old Mahan had experienced (by his standards) a lackluster year, falling all the way to 42nd in the World rankings and 62nd in the FedEx points table.  A bogey on the 18th hole dropped the Oklahoma State graduate to 14-under, but that was still good enough to clinch his 6th win on the Tour.  Given Mahan’s stellar record in Matchplay (he won the Accenture World Matchplay event in 2012 and was the runner-up the following year), he has made a very strong case to be a Captain’s pick in next month’s Ryder Cup.

Talented Aussie, Jason Day, played well again when in contention and shot a 3-under 68, to finish tied with a 3-under par 68 and a share of second with Appleby and Tringale.  As Day continues to string together high finishes while only winning twice in his career, you have to wonder what psychological affects linger after so many close calls.  For Day and Furyk both, it is the mental “Everest” that challenges every golfer.  A myopic Tibetan mountain that says in one breath; “you can never conquer me” and then in the next “please keep trying”.

This week, it is Mahan who has reached the summit.  From a distant 62nd, he promised to deliver and is the FedEx points leader where he will remain until Sunday of next week, at least.