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Following epic 2018, this Tour Championship seems void of excitement

August 22, 2019

ATLANTA — Anddd they’re off! Thirty goodfellas, rich already and about to get richer, are playing in twosomes on a straightforward and special course, East Lake, with its emerald fairways and Bobby Jones fog. There will be no pace-of-play issues this week at the Tour Championship. All the players are par-shooters or better, the competitor-to-official ratio is high and the green-to-tee walks are short.

Plus, there will be no hard-to-corral mobs this year to slow things down. The unspoken and worrisome truth for the PGA Tour is this: No Tiger, no mobs, and that’s a bad thing. (RIP, J. Whitaker.) Tiger Woods, despite winning the Masters in April, was not, as the whole first-world knows, among the low 30 FedEx point-gatherers.

And therein lies the first problem with this event, the Tour Championship, starting today and concluding on Sunday. Thirty is not a field. It’s a Southern bachelor party, this one seriously lacking in bonhomie. On Tuesday, you could see Rickie Fowler playing a practice-round alone and Kevin Kisner doing the same. There was not a single paying fan following either player. (The gates were closed to fans on Tuesday.) On Wednesday, you could see Dustin Johnson playing alone and Rory McIlory, also a singleton, right behind him. There were a few dozen paying fans following either player, at most, on a day when you could grill a dog on Alston Drive. Elsewhere, there were acres and acres of empty golfland.

Somebody from the Weather Channel asked Lucas Glover about his early-morning tee time. Yes, Glover said good-naturedly, he’s going early — first off Thursday morning, at 11:45.

This tournament has had a small field for decades and it’s always struggled to find an energy source, despite the loyal support of The Southern Company, makers of energy. Really, something needs to change.

Tommy Fleetwood and his caddie walk together during a practice round this week.
Tommy Fleetwood and his caddie walk together during a practice round this week.
Getty Images

Yes, there was last year, because you-know-who did you-know-what. (No, we’re not talking about Justin Rose winning the FedEx Cup because that whole thing, between the point-system and the gaudy payout, is just not relatable. Sorry!) Tiger Woods winning a golf tournament after a five-year hiatus was a show-stopper and the hangover is still lodged in the heat. “I wish he were here this year,” Paul Casey said on Wednesday. “Every tournament is better when Tiger is playing.”

It wasn’t hard to get people to remember last year. There was the police officer who guarded Woods last year. (Upon being recognized, the officer said, “I went viral there, for a day.”) Golf Channel has been showing highlights from last year, when fans chanted the winner’s name and, briefly and oddly, the country of his birth. (“U-S-A, U-S-A.”) Arthur Blank, the 76-year-old owner of two football teams, the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, was at East Lake on Wednesday, and on Tiger Sunday, a year ago. He noted how the atmosphere, when Woods won, was much closer to a football game, and summarized with elegant precision the importance of the moment: “He reclaimed his identity.”

Bob Jones IV, a clinical psychologist and the legend’s namesake grandson, was in East Lake’s grand and imposing brick clubhouse when Woods tapped in for victory one year ago. “The clubhouse shook,” Jones said the other days. “You could see ripples in the water glasses.”

This year’s ripples are much more likely to have a different origin. Sooner or later, one of the 30 players will likely dunk one in that yawning body of water in which young Bobby once frolicked, East Lake.

There’s a plan afoot (he’s typing in a dream-state now!) for a radical reconsideration of these three August FedEx events. This reporter and his young colleague, Master Sean Zak, are promoting a new system by which the FedEx winner would simply be the golfer who takes the fewest strokes over all 216 holes of FedEx I (Liberty National, this year), FedEx II (Medinah in 2019) and FedEx III (East Lake, this year and many others). The winner of the Tour Championship would be the 72-hole winner of the third and final week.

The Tour Championship field would be expanded to include each winner of the four majors plus the winner of the Players and any two-time winners over the season. As for the FedEx Cup chase, there would be cuts after each round of the first 11 rounds as the low-eight (plus ties) would be sent packing. You’d likely have about 45 players by the start of the third week, and even that number might not be enough. As great as Tiger’s win was last year, it would have meant even more against a bigger field.

So this year, Tiger’s watching the action unfold not from East Lake’s zoysia fairways from his South Florida home.

Watching golf is one of his hobbies but this week he has an ulterior motive, to see the eight players already on his Presidents Cup team, and some of his potential captain’s picks, in action. Size up where they are. It would be better, of course, if he were playing, and he’d have another chance to see where he stacks up, as a possible captain’s pick himself. Matt Kuchar, for one, playing this week and an assistant captain on last year’s Ryder Cup team, said that picking Woods for the team is a no-brainer. Maybe, or maybe it was a case of absence making the heart grow fonder.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@Golf.com