Big payday awaits at East Lake

It might be winner take all again this week in the Tour Championship.

That is what has happened the last four years, with Jim Furyk, Bill Haas, Brandt Snedeker and Henrik Stenson winning the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta and simultaneously taking home the FedEx Cup trophy at the end of the playoffs.

It is exactly the way commissioner Tim Finchem and the other powers-that-be at the PGA Tour wanted it after the first three years of the playoffs. Tiger Woods claimed the FedEx Cup in 2007, who he captured the finale. Vijay Singh won the prize in 2008, and Woods came out on top again in 2009, both by dominating during the regular season and early in the postseason.

It was very interesting when Phil Mickelson beat Woods in the 2009 Tour Championship and the two rivals shared the spotlight during the awards ceremony.

Even so, changes were made to guarantee drama at the finish.

Finchem said last year at the Tour Championship that more tweaks could be made because perhaps the volatile point swings that can take place under the newer rules might be too much.

“We like volatility, but is it too much volatility?” Finchem said. “If you have that much volatility in the first couple of weeks of the playoffs, does it throw that off a little bit?

“You want the season to mean a lot.”

Jimmy Walker led the FedEx Cup standings for all but three weeks of the season, until Rory McIlroy unseated him by winning three consecutive tournaments, including two majors.

Walker has played steady golf during the playoffs, and he enters the Tour Championship sixth in the standings, still with a reasonable chance to win the whole thing.

The playoffs have been a work in progress from the beginning, and there has been more than a little criticism, especially when Padraig Harrington won two major titles in 2008 and didn’t make it to the Tour Championship.

Harrington analyzed the situation with his usual class, saying he didn’t deserve to be in the finale because he did not play well enough in the first three legs of the playoffs.

Under the rules that govern the postseason these days, all 30 players who made it to East Lake mathematically have a chance to take home the FedEx Cup, although if any player in the top five of the standings wins, he will be the double winner.

Chris Kirk, Billy Horschel, Bubba Watson, McIlroy and Hunter Mahan, in that order, are the leaders through the first three weeks of the four-week postseason. A victory for one of them at Atlanta would be like hitting the lottery, as Stenson did when he banked $11.44 million, including $10 million for the FedEx Cup and $1.44 million for winning the Tour Championship a year ago.

Stenson, of course, doubled down when he went back to the European Tour and captured the season-long Race to Dubai by winning the World Tour Championship-Dubai, the Euro Tour finale.

The big Swede became the first player to win the chases on both major tours, the same year or not, and he took home another $3 million or so for winning the Euro Tour double, making his take-home pay for last year from both major tours about $20 million.

Stenson said that the only bigger prize would be to become the first Swedish man to win one of golf’s major titles. He came close with four finishes in the top four in the Grand Slam events the past two years.

Worn out by his brilliant second half of the 2103 season, which included a runner-up finish in the Open Championship at Muirfield and solo third in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, Stenson never really got started this year.

In fact, he didn’t even make it into the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings after tying for 23rd in the BMW Championship last week, winding up 52nd on the list, so he did not qualify to defend his title this week at East Lake.

That is nothing new.

When Snedeker made it back to the Tour Championship a year ago after winning the title in 2012, he became the first FedEx champion to get a chance to defend his title in Atlanta.

Woods, Singh, Furyk and Haas all failed to finish in the top 30 after three rounds of the playoffs and were not it Atlanta a year later, thanks to injuries and/or subpar play.

Everybody was saying that Snedeker beat the curse, but perhaps it only was delayed in his case.

Snedeker endured a disappointing 2014 season and bowed out of the playoffs at 86th in the FedEx Cup standings after the Deutsche Bank Championship, failing to make the 70-man field for the BMW Championship in round three last week.

After his winner-take-all win two years ago, perhaps it was the golf gods’ way of keeping him from getting greedy.

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