Tour Championship truths and falsehoods

10/30/2006 - Golf

The PGA Tour isn't rolling out the anniversary folderol just yet, but this year's Tour Championship marks the 20th time the top 30 money winners have gathered for a season-ending wallow in largesse. Its 1987 inception was known as the Nabisco Championships of Golf, paid a then-gaudy $2 million purse and presented two-stroke winner Tom Watson with a tour-record payout of $360,000 (that's $605,180 in today's dollars). It was christened the Tour Championship in 1991, and the purse is up to $6.5 million (that's $3.86 million in 1987 dollars) with a first prize of $1.17 million. Fast approaching its third decade, the tournament and six-time host East Lake GC in Atlanta have enough history to allow some educated speculation on how the Nov. 2-5 event will play out.

1. The same guys show up year after year.
Half-truth. The first 19 tournaments involved 162 players. Roughly one in four (44 players) have made five or more starts, locking up a lot of spots in such a small field. That includes former champs Paul Azinger (1992, eight starts), David Duval (1997, seven), Jim Gallagher Jr. (1993, five), Tom Kite (1989, seven), Tom Lehman (1996, nine), Phil Mickelson (2000, 10), Vijay Singh (2002, 12), Hal Sutton (1998, seven), Mike Weir (2001, five) and Tiger Woods (1999, 10).

But there's also a supporting cast. More than 50 percent of all-time participants have two or fewer starts. There are 61 players (37.7 percent) with one appearance and 26 players (16 percent) with two. The one-and-out list includes Bart Bryant (won his debut last year at East Lake), runners-up Russ Cochran ('91) and Fuzzy Zoeller ('94) and a handful of top-five placers. Rookies this year include Trevor Immelman, Arron Oberholser, Geoff Ogilvy, Rod Pampling, Carl Pettersson, Brett Quigley, Brett Wetterich and Dean Wilson.

2. No one has successfully defended the title.
True.There have been close calls. Kite lost a 1988 playoff to Curtis Strange at Pebble Beach before winning in '89 at Harbour Town. Woods won in '99 at Champions, then finished two behind Mickelson at East Lake. Charles Howell III took second in '02-03. Ditto Woods in '04-05.

Just returning to the field is too high a barrier for some victors. Eight of 19 past champs didn't tee it up the next year: Watson (won in '87), Jodie Mudd ('90), Gallagher ('93), Mark McCumber ('94), Billy Mayfair ('95), Mickelson ('00), Weir ('01) and Chad Campbell (withdrew in '03). In fact, Mudd and McCumber won their last showing.

So what kind of company does the Tour Championship keep by not having a back-to-back winner? Of the 40 other tour events on this year's schedule that existed in 1987, a full 65 percent (26 of them) have had a repeater in that span. The 14 that haven't include the Hope, FBR, Doral, Players, Nelson, Colonial, Booz Allen, Milwaukee, Canadian, International and Greensboro.

3. A major win guarantees making the field.
False (with an asterisk).A full quarter of major winners since 1987 haven't played the Tour Championship. Thirteen of those 19 absentees were foreign players such as Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and José Maria Olazábal. Sometimes they didn't earn enough in the U.S., but sometimes they didn't meet membership requirements or had a conflict with the European Tour's season-ender. The most recent foreign-born champ to sit is Michael Campbell ('05 U.S. Open).

When it comes to homegrowns, though, there's a short list of guys who didn't make it into the top 30 despite a major's riches: John Daly ('95 British, 57th in money), Ben Curtis ('03 British, 46th) and Shaun Micheel ('03 PGA, 32nd). Payne Stewart died after his '99 U.S. Open title, and Mickelson opted out after the '05 PGA (and this year, too, despite his Masters win).

4. Tiger Woods has the best career record.
False (no asterisk needed). Woods' solo second last year was his fifth top-10, but that pales compared with Singh's 10. The Fijian made his first of 12 starts in 1993 -- Woods won his third U.S. Junior Amateur that year -- and logged his first top-10 in 1995, the year before Woods arrived. In the 10 tournaments they've played together, one has finished higher than the other an equal number of times. Woods leads at East Lake, 3-2, despite Singh's 2002 victory.

The clincher? Woods has finished in the bottom 10 twice; Singh has never dipped below solo 17th.

5. Alas, it won't come down to the last hole.
Suppose so. Remember Sutton nipping a bespectacled Singh at the 240-yard 18th with a 4-wood to six feet in a 1998 playoff, after Jim Furyk bogeyed to miss the playoff? Duval quipped, "every good course should have a drivable par 4." Although it's ideal for a mano-a-mano staredown, never ranking below fourth-toughest for the week, the 18th has seen more coronations than coronaries. The last four victories have been by two, two, four and six shots.

This year's winner will come from among those who have a PGA Tour title this season. That's not simply because 14 of the previous 19 winners have done so. It's because it has happened at East Lake all five previous playings. By comparison, Champions GC near Houston has a 3-2 mark.