Tiger, Phil get one final free pass

Updated: November 2, 2006, 12:05 PM ET
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Who says Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson don't get along? Is that true? Really, these guys should be bosom buddies. (Hey, no Hefty Lefty pun intended, folks.)

They both favor the color green -- as in green jackets, not money, though each owns a bank account with more zeroes than Alex Rodriguez's postseason batting average. They're both among the most ballyhooed ping-pongers since Forrest Gump. And they both enjoy playing golf, albeit in limited amounts, as evidenced by their coinciding absences from this week's Tour Championship.

Abandoning the season-ending tournament has already been declared by pundits a "selfish" and "embarrassing" act on the part of Woods and Mickelson. With a maximum of 30 players in the field, everyone wins at East Lake, where there is no cut and even the last-place competitor is assured a $106,000 prize.

That's right. In essence, the tour offered a six-figure payday to any top player who could weather four days in downtown Atlanta ... but Tiger and Phil turned down the free money. Of course, they don't need the extra greenbacks. Woods banked almost $10 million in earnings on the PGA Tour this year, while Mickelson was well over the $4 million mark.

Compare that with a guy like K.J. Choi. Last week's winner of the Chrysler Championship could be afflicted with the Charles Barkley shanks at East Lake, finish dead last by a mile and still pull his fifth-largest paycheck of the season.

But let's offer a revolutionary idea that hasn't quite made the rounds this week: Woods and Mickelson aren't to blame for their no-show appearances this week. The fault lies with the PGA Tour.

The Tour Championship has devolved into less Super Bowl than Pro Bowl, less World Series than All-Star Game. It's where the rich get richer and the really rich, well, they stay home.

Like the kids say: Don't hate the player, hate the game.

Woods and Mickelson are skipping this week's tournament because the tour has essentially proclaimed it a high-stakes giveaway, meaning there's simply no motivation for either guy to pack the entire entourage into his private jet and play some golf. So what's the big deal? If Tom Brady eschewed the annual lovefest in Hawaii, or Albert Pujols passed up a chance to compete in the midsummer classic, hardly anyone would notice let alone criticize their decisions.

(Then again, it's been suggested that since NFL players who forgo the Pro Bowl still take advantage of the free trip to paradise, perhaps Tiger and Phil should feel compelled to vacation at East Lake this week, catching some rays in the course's luxurious bunkers, lounging in the venerable clubhouse, even taking a dip in the eponymous water hazard that guards five of the course's holes.)

Don't worry. This will all work itself out soon enough -- next season, in fact, when the PGA Tour goes all NASCAR with its FedEx Cup that will culminate in a four-tournament playoff. For perhaps the first time ever, the conclusion to the golf schedule will hold some promise and, likely, some drama, when the Tour Championship serves as a purposeful antidote to the late-season apathy we've seen growing over time.

"[Tiger] does what he says he's going to do, and I think he's been unequivocal about being here next year and playing the FedEx Cup from the get-go and looking forward to the playoffs," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said Wednesday. "As far as Phil goes, Phil has, in more than one year, disappeared earlier in the fall, not to reappear for a good period of time. And, again, the structure for next year gives him the flexibility to do that without missing any of those tournaments."

That's because next year's schedule concludes in mid-September, meaning every exempt player -- not just the elite -- will have more than enough time to rest those weary bones, play with the kids and buy a few tropical islands before the next season begins.

Translation: Tiger and Phil, this is your last free pass. You can get away with playing hooky this one final time, but starting next year, attendance is mandatory.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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