Phil Mickelson sounds more into the FedEx Cup this Tiger-less year. FedEx Cup in year two is more golf - and big money - focused

PARAMUS, N.J. - Hunter Mahan didn't even blink when a FedEx Cup dodge ball (apparently the PGA Tour's reaching for the competitive fifth-grade recess market) was handed over for an autograph. Mahan just signed the kid's ball and kept on moving.

What only a year ago would have brought raised eyebrows - and often joking derision, too - from the PGA Tour players themselves is now generally accepted in this second edition of the FedEx Cup playoffs, which begins this morning with The Barclays tournament. Part of this is because the tour tweaked the format with changes the players wanted, like adjusting the points system so it's easier to actually move in the standings, converting the majority of the grand prize for the playoff winner into cash ($9 million of the $10 million upfront this year) rather than a retirement annuity and scheduling a week off in the four-tournament run.

Part of it's also because the FedEx Cup pushing is definitely dialed down at least 10 notches (intentional or not), and it's more about the actual golf. There is a star-packed field at the Ridgewood Country Club here in Northern New Jersey, which is what the FedEx Cup was originally supposed to be all about: producing late-season tournaments where the Top 20 played against each other.

No. 1 Tiger Woods is still out, of course, doing what rehabbing new billionaires do. Many people have already forgotten that Woods skipped The Barclays last year too, though, further hurting the FedEx Cup's credibility before the first shot was even hit.

Of course, when Woods went 2nd-1st-1st in the next three FedEx Cup tournaments, it was hard for anyone to dispute his strategy (Woods actually played one extra week than he had to; under the old points system he would have still won the Cup last year skipping two of its four tournaments).

Now, with no Tiger and new points rules in to help prevent the possibility of a Tiger-like, no-need-to-show romp, nine of the next Top 10 ranked players in the world are here (with No. 6 Henrik Stenson, who concentrates on the European Tour, the only absence). Most, including Phil Mickelson (whose skipping of the third FedEx Cup tournament right after having out dueled Tiger at No. 2 in Boston might have hurt the PGA Tour's idea of the playoffs most of all), are talking like they are going to play all four weeks this year.

"With no Tiger, I think a lot more guys really believe they have a good chance of winning it," said Stewart Cink, who, as one of the players in the Top 20 in FedEx Cup points, has a much more realistic mathematical chance than most. "Plus, $10 million may not be a lot to Tiger Woods. But it's still a lot for most guys out here.

"I know $10 million is a heck of a lot to me."

Mickelson brings up not his own commitment (which still could change) but someone else's as the Cup's best sign.

"What's cool is that we have a guy like Padraig Harrington, who just won the last two majors and would love to take a bunch of time off, but he cares about the playoffs, and he's here and plans on playing every week," Mickelson said. "I think that speaks to how credible these events have quickly become."

The events themselves have a different feel as well. This year, The Barclays has not been about all FedEx Cup talk all the time. There's been admiration for the old A.W. Tillinghast design at new host Ridgewood. There's been talk about the 291-yard, par-4 fifth hole that continues the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines South trend of giving the best players in the world a par 4 they can go for (Anthony Kim is already saying he plans to try and reach the green in one every day).

You're also never far from hearing more Ryder Cup debate and positioning for the last few spots on the teams.

There are many more FedEx Cup-free zones.

"My intention is to win the golf tournament," Vijay Singh said. "I haven't seen the (FedEx) points. I'm not worried about the points. I'm trying to win the golf tournament."

FedEx Cup finds itself on the outside at Ridgewood

There are also far fewer blaring FedEx Cup signs at Ridgewood. Part of this is because the course's parking lot is so small and crammed that the special FedEx Cup truck and many of the larger signs had to be parked on a road leading to the course.

Walking around the Ridgewood grounds, one isn't overwhelmed by the advertising banners like at Westchester Country Club last year.

"It feels like a big golf tournament," Brandt Snedeker said. "Not a major but a big tournament. You'd want to win a tournament with this type of field no matter what it was for."

Not that the money hurts. The purses for each individual tournament in the Cup series are still pumped up from an ordinary event as well. The Barclays winner will pocket $1.26 million and there's that $9 million for the overall FedEx Cup winner.

"I'm very motivated," Kim said. "I'm looking at this house in Dallas, Texas, right now that I maybe can't afford, so I need a good FedEx Cup. I'm putting some pressure on myself to go get that house."

And you thought there was no romance to the FedEx Cup?

August 21, 2008

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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