Fall Guy

A Comeback by Mike Weir Underscored This Point: There's a Lot of Life in a Season Left for Dead
October 28, 2007

So far, the fallhas been a classic

IF an intrepidmagazine writer journeys to Scottsdale, Ariz., searching for a deeperunderstanding of the Fall Series, the least likely place he expects to have amoment of clarity is in a men's room at Grayhawk Golf Club, the site of lastweek's Fry's electronics open. But last thursday your correspondent visited awater closet only to find himself at a sink next to phil Mickelson, who wastrying to scrub away the stench of an opening-round 71 that included numerousmisadventures in the desert shrubbery.

"You musthave pissed off somebody to get assigned to this," Mickelson said with awicked grin. "Did you get caught [sleeping with] your editor'swife?"

Uh, no, but pointtaken.

To certainsegments of the golf establishment—say, superstar players and self-importantscribes—this inaugural Fall Series has long been considered akin to aseven-week staph infection, to be avoided at all costs. Mickelson made a cameoat the Fry's only because of his intense loyalties to the Scottsdale golfcommunity. He went to arizona State and lived in the area for the first half ofhis pro career, and he has been a paid endorser of Grayhawk. In fact, over theyears Mickelson has chewed so much scenery there that the clubhouse eatery iscalled phil's Grill, which also describes his performance at the Fry's: philgot grilled, missing the cut by a shot after two rounds (including a Friday 70)of giggle golf.

Mickelson'sbrief, heavily hyped visit threw into sharp relief the general scarcity of starpower that has been one prominent feature of the Fall Series. (His bathroom digwas also a not-so-subtle nod to the minimal media coverage.) With fivetournaments now in the books, Mickelson is the only player in the top 10 of theWorld Ranking to have teed up during the Fall Series, and none were on hand atthis week's Ginn sur Mer Classic, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Tournament officialsat the season-ending Children's Miracle Network Classic, in Orlando on Nov.1--4, are hoping a few big name locals will feel compelled to get off theircouches.)

"I think theFall Series has been a success in a lot of ways," says Joe Ogilvie, amember of the Tour's policy board, "but it's disappointing that the topguys haven't played."

Really, Joe? didyou honestly expect any of them to show up?

"Well, O.K.,I thought Vijay [Singh] might play a few."

If the FedEx Cupwas conceived as a way to bring together golf's best and brightest, then theFall Series was for everybody else, a sort of fifth quarter designed for theTour's scrubs to fight for their playing privileges. (the post--Fedex Cupschedule was originally touted as the Chase for the Card before a calculatedrebranding.)

But even withoutthe biggest names, the Fall Series has not turned out to be as B-list asexpected. on Sunday the Fry's crowned a worthy winner in 2003 Masters champMike Weir. It was the eighth victory of his career and certainly one of themost meaningful, as it ended 3½ years of frustration. Weir's triumph continuedthe dominant story of this Fall Series, which has been the resurgence offront-line players. the first three tournaments were won by, in order, SteveFlesch (his second victory in eight weeks), Chad Campbell (a Ryder Cupper whohas finished in the top 30 on the money list for four years running) and Justinleonard (a former British open and players Championship victor). leonard'svictory at the Texas open should go down as one of the best tournaments of theseason, fall or otherwise.

The native Texanjoined Arnold Palmer as the only three-time winner of the Texas Open, survivinga dog-fight down the stretch with fan favorite Jesper Parnevik, who repeatedlyescaped trouble with some outrageous shotmaking. Record crowds at the laCanteraResort, in San antonio, helped the tournament raise $8 million for charity, anamount that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem says is an alltime record."Frankly, I'm not sure what more you can ask from a tournament," saysthe commish.

The Fall Seriesgot its first unknown winner two weeks ago in las Vegas, where George McNeillbroke through at the Frys.com open, but the 32-year-old former All-America atFlorida State is hardly a fluke. McNeill has a rock-solid game, and even beforehis dominating four-stroke victory in Vegas he had proved his mettle at the endof 2006 by winning golf's most harrowing tournament, the Q school.

Says theperpetually sunny Finchem, "What I'm hearing through word of mouth, throughthe blogs, is that the fans are enjoying getting to see some of the otherplayers. A very small number of our players get 90 percent of the TV coverage,and they are obviously very important to the Tour. But there are othercompelling stories out here, and it's important for us to have those storiestold."

Golf Channel istelevising every round of the Fall Series, offering a consistent platform (touse one of Finchem's favorite words) and endless hucksterism. "We were onESPN the last five years," says Tony Piazzi, the tournament director of theTexas Open, "and the look and feel of the coverage has definitely beenupgraded. ESPN has so much programming that, promotionally, golf never got thesupport we or the sponsor would have liked."

The varied venuesthis fall have also offered pretty good theater, demanding more of the playersthan any of the cupcake courses that hosted the Fedex Cup's so-called playoffs.Grayhawk is not a watery, risk-reward roller coaster like the crosstown TPCScottsdale, site of February's FBR Open, but rather a stout, straightforwardtest of the long game punctuated by some wild green complexes. the feel of thetwo Scottsdale tournaments also couldn't be more different. the FBR is golf'sversion of a toga party, regularly drawing 100,000 rowdy fans on a weekend day.A word used a lot last week was intimate, as if the players were talking abouta darkened bistro. Because of Grayhawk's rugged terrain, only 17,000 ticketswere printed for each round, and the crowds were so sparse that fans could getclose enough to hear the players hyperventilating.

The breathing washeavy because, despite the laid-back feel on the grounds, the Fry's, like theother Fall Series events, is the backdrop to one of the most cutthroat ritualsin sports, as players jostle to finish in the top 125 on the money list andthus keep their jobs for next season. Last week Alex Cejka may as well have hada giant bull's-eye on his back, as he entered the tournament at number 125."oh, man, it's stressful," says Cejka, 36, who has finished 140th and145th on the money list for the past two years. "I'm trying to just playgolf, but it's always there in the back of my mind."

Cejka is anintense, fast-talking character, and he doesn't try to hide howstomach-churning it is to play for your supper. He's still haunted by one badswing that occurred two months ago, on the 35th hole at the Barclays, the firstof the Fedex Cup playoff events. He was in the middle of the fairway, 100 yardsout, but a tentative approach shot led to a fatal bogey. "If I make parthere, I make the cut and make enough money to earn a spot the next week inBoston," Cejka says. "Then, who knows what happens? Maybe right now Ihave so much money in the bank that I'm at home on the couch playing with mydogs."

Instead he hadthe rest of the Fedex Cup to prepare for the Fall Series. "It's like theultimate second chance," Cejka says. "Going in, everyone knew he couldsave his year with a few good weeks." Cejka is on the verge of doingexactly that. His tie for sixth at the Fry's was the fourth straight week hehas finished 30th or better, and he has now inched up to 110th on the moneylist.

If Cejka'shaggard visage was indicative of a certain kind of Fall Series competitor, TimClark's scraggly beard symbolized something else entirely: the lucky playerswho had the luxury of treating the Fall Series as a working vacation. Of hisscruff, Clark says, "I've been on holiday for a couple of weeks so Ithought I'd keep it going." last month Clark had surgery to have nerves inhis neck cauterized, and he is finally feeling healthy after a pain-filled yearduring which he nonetheless had five top seven finishes, which propelled him to21st in the final Fedex Cup standings. "I'd love to get a victory and allthat, but for me this is like spring training for next year. If anything goodhappens on the course, it's simply a bonus," says Clark, who received sucha dividend at the Fry's with an 18th-place finish worth $60,857.

During the FallSeries everyone has something different to play for. At 65th on the money listafter his 27th-place finish in Scottsdale, Ogilvie is motivated to protect hisposition in the top 70, which confers a spot in next season's limited-fieldinvitationals such as Bay Hill and the Colonial. others players are eyeing thetop 30, which brings an exemption to all four of 2008's major championships."Trying to sneak into Augusta is the only reason I'm here," saysMcNeill, who stood 59th at week's end.

While the FallSeries is obviously good for the Tour's middle class, it also makes sense formid-level corporations trying to buy into the Tour, because TV rights fees areabout 30% less for these tournaments than for those with network coverage onthe weekends. However, this new competitive landscape has come with someuncertainties. The Tour is months behind schedule in releasing its slate oftournaments for 2008, and question marks surrounding the fall are part of thereason. Finchem says there will definitely be seven tournaments in next year'sFall Series, and maybe even an eighth, but where they'll be played is stillbeing finessed. This week's event in Port St. Lucie was supposed to be held inFresno, Calif., but the proposed host course was never completed. the threebrothers who control Fry's Electronics had hoped to play their eponymoustournament at a vanity course they've built in Morgan Hill, Calif., butconstruction delays and messy local politics led to a one-year deal withGrayhawk. last week various officials from Fry's Electronics, from Fry'selectronics, the Tour and the tournament were mum on where the event will beplayed next season. "Nobody knows," says Ogilvie, who is aclearinghouse for a lot of Tour gossip. "I've heard the Greenbrier, Kiawah,Oklahoma City. the latest rumor is that just this week they signed a two-yeardeal to keep it here at Grayhawk." (No announcement had been made as SIwent to press on Monday.)

Keeping thetournament in Scottsdale would certainly be popular with the many players wholive nearby. Aaron Baddeley, Tom Lehman and Billy Mayfair were just three ofthe accomplished locals with no worries about job security who nonethelessturned out to support the event. Grayhawk is also the key to the continuedparticipation of Mickelson, who despite his missed cut gave the tournament, andthe Fall Series, more credibility. Says Finchem, "Here's why phil isimportant: The Tour brand may be getting stronger, but in today's world theplayers are the Number 1 asset of the game. phil's showing up is helpful ingetting fans to understand this is PGA tour golf. It is important that the fallbe recognized as PGA tour golf."

That alreadyseems to be happening. There may even come a day when a reporter will be ableto show up at a Fall Series event without being teased by Mickelson.

WINNING COMBO Weir, who caught Hensby (below) on thefinal nine, ranked second in greens hit and in scrambling.

"We were on ESPN the last five years," saysPiazzi," and the look and feel of the coverage HAS DEFINITELY BEENUPGRADED."

The locations could change, but Finchem says theredefinitely will be seven events in next year's Fall Series, AND MAYBE EVEN ANEIGHTH.

 

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PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICHFINAL PUSH
A Sunday-best 68 helped Weir win the Fry's Electronic Open by a shot.
PHOTOMARC FELDMAN/WIREIMAGE.COM (LEFT); NAME BRANDS Campbell (left) and Leonard got their careers back on track with victories earlier in the Falls Series. PHOTOJONATHAN FERRY/WIREIMAGE.COM[See caption above.] PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)