NORTON, Mass. — Jim Furyk birdied the first three holes here Friday morning. So I’m sure you were thinking exactly what I was thinking — he’s on pace for 53!
Well, the man now proudly known as Mr. 58 didn’t get the 18-under 53, or even a 58. In fact, he tacked on 14 straight pars after that quick start. (Mr. Par! Nah, that nickname is never going to catch on.) He added a fourth birdie at the final hole to shoot 67 and get to four under.
This is important because the only time the race to the FedEx Cup finale at the Tour Championship really gets compelling is when there happens to be a big-name player on the bubble to advance. Meet this week’s glamorous bubble boys, Mr. 58 and Steve Stricker.
You already know how the FedEx Cup works. Well, not the points part. Even Fibonacci might have trouble with this math progression. The only thing you really need to know is that the so-called playoffs began last week at The Barclay’s with 120 players (125 qualified, but five players chose not to compete). Based on points, the field was cut to 100 golfers here at the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston. Only 70 players will move on to the BMW Championship next week in Indianapolis and then finally, the top 30 go to Atlanta and play for the $10 million first prize.
Most of the time, the cuts from 125 to 100, 100 to 70 and 70 to 30 eliminate players you don’t know or care much about.
But this week, Your Mr. 58 is one of those guys. Furyk ranks 84th on the points list. He needs to move up 14 spots to keep going. And as a former FedEx Cup champ (remember when he made that putt in the rain at East Lake with his cap on backwards and did that fist pump?) he knows what it takes and he knows how much of this stuff he has to tune out.
The same goes for Stricker. He’s inching closer to being eligible for the over-50 Champions Tour, but he put together a kind of renaissance year in 2016. (Hey, he might be a candidate to win the tour’s Comeback Player of the Year Award for a third time!) Stricker is lurking at 97th on the points list. He didn’t have Furyk’s quick start but eventually matched Furyk’s opening 67.
Other notables outside the cutline include ageless Vijay Singh, 95th; former Navy man Billy Hurley, who won the Quicken Loans National, 77th; and Webb Simpson, former U.S. Open champion, 74th.
Furyk and Stricker are battling to play another week. Furyk is also looking to impress Ryder Cup captain Davis Love enough to become one of Love’s four-wild card additions to the American team. Love was already impressed enough to name Furyk a vice captain months ago. Stricker, too.
So these two late 40-somethings are practically joined at the hip in this week’s battle.
There is a little more at stake for Furyk, perhaps. He is on a short list of Ryder Cup picks and he will be hard to overlook, in some ways. He has a dismal 10-20-4 Ryder Cup match mark but as captain Davis Love points out, every American player of the last 20 years has a dismal record. He made a last-round charge to tie for second at Oakmont in the U.S. Open that was impressive. He was 13th in Canada, fifth in Hartford with his closing 58 and 10th at the Wyndham Championship.
If you pick Furyk, you lose one of the team’s best vice captains while gaining a veteran war horse. It’ll be a tough call and Furyk looks like he’s going to make it even tougher this week. Any pressure to make the top 70 or Ryder Cup will be ignored.
“It’s always something in this game,” Furyk said. “You’re always trying to make a cut, you’re always trying to win a tournament. We get used to it. You know, if I don’t play well, the season’s over. I’ll probably start in Napa and play a little bit in the fall. If I do play well, I’ll get an opportunity again next week and we’ll be having the same discussion about the Tour Championship.
“I had that same discussion last week sitting at 94th. I think they said I had to finish 60th or better, which I didn’t know until about the middle of the turn. I got off to a bad start there and had to fight and claw and play the next 27 holes. So here we are again. I know one thing: Every time I’ve worried about it and I’ve worried too much about the result, I haven’t played very well.”
It’s funny but just as Justin Rose has been asked about his Olympic gold medal ever since he won it, Furyk is getting the Mr. 58 treatment on a regular basis. It’s nice, but too much of any good thing is too much. The Ryder Cup team and its staff had a get-together Wednesday night at Gillette Stadium and each player got a bag of goodies, including a New England Patriots uniform. The players all got No. 1s on their jerseys. Love surprised Furyk by getting him a No. 58.
“It doesn’t matter where I go, it’s mentioned 150 times,” Furyk said of his record-setting round. “So it’s been fun and I’m not sure I put it into perspective yet. I’ve been trying to compartmentalize it and put it behind me and really try to focus on playing well and extend the season. But I haven’t been able to put it behind me yet, to be honest.”
For Stricker, a good showing this year was a nice reward after recovering from hip and back issues last year. It looked as if the PGA at Whistling Straits, in his home state of Wisconsin, might be his last appearance in a major championship. Then he played well enough in Memphis, tying for second, to earn a spot in the British Open, where he played well enough, finishing fourth, to move up on the points list. He’s back, ladies and gentlemen. ¬At least, as far back as a 49-year-old can expect in this young man’s game.
“My goal this year was just to finish in the top 125 and get back into some of the tournaments I didn’t play this year,” Stricker said. “The Players, some of the majors — and I’m in a couple of those already for next year. So I’m excited about that. Then I made it to Barclays. You know, we’re all competitive, we all want to do well and we all want to keep moving on.”
Stricker’s spark Friday was his putter. That isn’t normally a surprise, since Stricker ranked among the best putters in the game for most of his career. Not lately, however. So Stricker switched putters this week at his wife’s suggestion.
“I didn’t do very well on the greens at Barclays last week,” Stricker said. “I struggled with keeping the putter-face square. Nicky was chirping at me, ‘You don’t play enough to use that heel-shafted thing, you need something that stays square better.’ So I went to a face-balanced putter today.”
When your wife makes a suggestion, it’s wise to obey. Also, Nicky is a good player in her own right and has often served as Steve’s caddie. She knows his game. So when Nicky talks, seriously you should listen. Also, it’s Boston, there are only two more FedEx Cup events left — what’s to lose? Stricker needed only 27 putts Friday.
“My back is against the wall, I need a good finish to move on so I thought, let’s see if we can get something to click with a new putter,” Steve said. “I’ve been working with it for a few days and I’m glad I did.”