$10 million knee-knocker might happen

9/24/2009 - Golf

ATLANTA -- The money in professional golf tends to make us numb. When you consider that Steve Stricker has earned more this year on the PGA Tour ($6 million) than Jack Nicklaus did in his career ($5.7 million), it is easy to put the numbers out of your mind.

But it remains difficult to ignore $10 million for one putt.

That is the bonus money that is at stake this week at the Tour Championship, and for the first time in the FedEx Cup's three-year history, there is actually a possibility that somebody could be sweating it out Sunday on East Lake Golf Club's 18th green over a putt worth that amount.

Or, more precisely, he could be looking at a putt that would win the Tour Championship ($1.35 million) and also the FedEx Cup ($10 million), meaning a whopping $11.35 million payout for such a knee-knocking conversion.

Even for guys who play for hundreds of thousands of dollars each week, many of whom have made millions in their careers, such a thought is enough to give them pause.

"I do believe with the money that's on the line this week that it would have an effect on the 18th hole," said Ireland's Padraig Harrington, whose opening-round 67 put him a stroke behind leader Sean O'Hair and tied for second with Tiger Woods and Stewart Cink. "It will be interesting to see. There will be no need to think about it but it would be quite possible that if you had a putt you could be caught thinking about the money.

"I can stand here and tell you, no, it won't affect me, I won't think about it at all, but I'd be telling you lies."

To his credit, Harrington is honest about his feelings. How can that sum of money not move you? Even Donald Trump must fret over $10 million. Imagine having to hole a putt to collect it.

Of course, it's not like it will be $10 million or bust.

The winner of the FedEx Cup gets a $10 million bonus on top of any prize money won in the Tour Championship, which can range from $1.35 million for the winner down to $120,000 for 30th place.

But there is a big drop-off between first and second in the FedEx Cup. No. 2 still gets $3 million, with $2 million going to third, $1.5 million to fourth and $1 million to fifth. The player who finishes 30th in the FedEx Cup standings gets $175,000.

"If a guy stands over a putt for $11 million, it's impossible that he's not going to realize what's going on," said Jim Furyk. "It makes this event unique. Now that it will come down to the last tournament, it makes this golf tournament unique. It brings the whole FedEx Cup together."

The $10 million bonus is enough to get their attention because it has been earned via prize money just three times in PGA Tour history. Vijay Singh was the first player to surpass $10 million in earnings in 2004, Tiger Woods did it in 2005 and again in 2007.

Of course, both Woods (2007) and Singh (2008) pocketed the $10 million bonus in the first two years of the FedEx Cup, too -- although that money did not count in their earnings total for either the year or their careers.

But the number is significant enough that only 93 players have made $10 million or more for their entire PGA Tour careers -- led, of course, by Woods, who has pocketed more than $92 million.

And that makes the game's No. 1 player an interesting study when the question of money is raised.

Obviously he doesn't need it, so a missed putt is never going to deny Woods any of life's luxuries.

Even as far back as 1996, when he first turned pro, the only reason Woods had to look at a money list was to see where he stood as far as earning his PGA Tour card -- a notion he made meaningless when he won in his fifth professional start in Las Vegas. Woods had signed a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Nike before he ever put a tee in the ground.

So does the possibility of $11.35 million at stake on one hole even get Tiger's attention?

"You don't look at it like that," Woods said. "Even when I was playing my rookie season, you just looked at trying to beat everybody in the field, and that it would kind of take care of itself. … You look at where do I place the ball and beat these guys."

OK, so how about this: Could a putt on the 18th green for more than $11 million in any way compare with, say, the putt on the 18th green at Torrey Pines last year that Woods had to have to tie Rocco Mediate at the U.S. Open? Or the one he had to have at the 2000 PGA Championship to tie Bob May?

"I'll equate it to this," Woods said. "When you have a putt like I did in 2000 to get into a playoff for the opportunity to win three straight majors and do something that hadn't been done since [Ben] Hogan [in 1953], when you're over that putt, all you think about is where you're playing that ball. All the other stuff takes care of itself. It's nothing else but starting the ball on that line with the correct speed. That's it.

"When I had that putt last year at the U.S. Open to get into a playoff, again, it was all about starting the ball on that line and making that putt. All the other things … you don't really think about that. You think about just making that putt."

Perhaps that is what separates Woods from the rest. Perhaps it is his ability to block out the consequences that makes him so good. Asked about it, he seems stunned that anyone would let the ramifications creep into his thoughts.

"Why? You have plenty of time after that," he said.

True, but that's not quite the way the normal mind works. Brandt Snedeker admitted after the BMW Championship that he was thinking of all the wrong things when he stood over a 3-foot putt that would have put him in the Tour Championship this week -- as well as the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in 2010. He missed -- and he's not here.

"Zinger [Paul Azinger] had it right," said Furyk, who is tied for 21st after shooting 72. "There's only two things he ever choked for, one was winning a golf tournament and the other one was money. It's a big deal. It's a lot of money. I think the best players are driven by history, but -- ''

Making money -- as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer would attest -- has little to do with history.

Short of that, it certainly gets your attention, especially when so much can be riding on one putt.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.