Can Tiger make it back to Tour Championship? It’s borderline

Tiger Woods is in there, somewhere, walking to the 18th green during the final round of last year's Tour Championship at East Lake. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

Credit: Tim Bradbury

Credit: Tim Bradbury

Tiger Woods is in there, somewhere, walking to the 18th green during the final round of last year's Tour Championship at East Lake. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

No. 28 in the FedEx Cup standings has some work to do the next two weeks in order to assure himself a place at golf’s season-ending Tour Championship. Only the top 30 make it to East Lake Aug. 22-25, and ol’ No. 28 has not been positively trending lately.

You know No. 28 as Tiger Woods, who last year turned East Lake inside-out by winning a tournament for the first time in five years. As he was coming up the 18th fairway on that Sunday of the Tour Championship, fans swarmed the fairway behind him like Woods was a Brinks truck leaking $100 bills. All heaven broke out. It was a scene of spontaneous jubilation unlike any to ever play out at Bobby Jones’ old stomping grounds (although I’m sure Mr. Jones stomped very genteelly).

He is far from a sure thing to make it back for an encore with the shortened playoffs now here. This week the top 125 in FedEx Cup points gather just outside New York for the Northern Trust. The top 70 move on the following week to the BMW Championship at Medinah (Ill.), with the 30 survivors diving into the Tour Championship money pit the week after that.

A year ago, Woods entered the playoffs 20th in the standings, wavered a bit, but made it to East Lake still a solid 20th. He was playing much better then than now. In his four events leading into the playoffs in 2018, he had three top 6 finishes and a 31st. This year, he has a pair of missed cuts, a T-21 and a T-9. His most recent outing was a missed cut at the British Open, where he played with the energy of a jet-lagged tourist.

It certainly would be good for business if Woods wakes up. “We’re expecting him to kill it this week and join us in a couple of weeks,” said Allison Fillmore, the ever-hopeful Tour Championship Executive Director. “Honestly, we’re preparing regardless. Ticket sales are still very strong, hospitality sales are really strong – we anticipate selling out the majority of venues. We’re ready regardless.”

With or without No. 28, there will be a Tour Championship held this year. A date change has moved the tournament up the calendar so that it no longer competes for attention with football. Woods’ noisy performance a year ago drew new fans and new eyes to the East Lake experience. Fillmore said ticket sales are up 15 percent over a year ago.

Other big names are on the ledge and need to do something quite dramatic the next two weeks in order to take part in the East Lake cash grab. Phil Mickelson (34th in FedEx Cup points), Jason Day (40th), Patrick Reed (50th), Sergio Garcia (65th), Jordan Spieth (69th) and Bubba Watson (71st) have played their way into desperation.

Woods has been undermined by his own inactivity. Maybe instead of asking whether Woods can make it back to East Lake, we should more properly ask does he really deserve to make it back?

This is an event based on consistency throughout the season, and his playing schedule has been so spotty. Yes, I know, he did win the Masters. But that doesn’t come with an automatic invitation to the Tour Championship.

Woods has so strictly rationed his playing – hoping to protect that fused spine – that he has rightfully cost himself position on the FedEx ladder. Contrast Woods to FedEx Cup points leader Brooks Koepka.

Koepka has played in 18 events this season (winning three times). Woods has played in 10. Since the Masters, Koepka has appeared in nine events, Woods just four.

As Woods tries to strike a balance between playing and rest, one of the casualties - if he can play no more than this - may have to be the Tour Championship, now and forevermore. He currently doesn’t play enough to be consistently competitive – he has logged exactly two rounds of tournament golf since June 16. And he certainly doesn’t play enough to compile a great store of points building toward East Lake.

Woods says he is going to play the next two weeks of the playoffs, going back-to-back with his back in an effort to protect his tenuous place in the Cup standings. To do so, he’ll need to play considerably better than he has the past two months.

Whether No. 28 has a third straight week in him is the great looming question of golf’s playoffs.