SI Vault
 
Fall Guy
Alan Shipnuck
October 29, 2007
A Comeback by Mike Weir Underscored This Point: There's a Lot of Life in a Season Left for Dead
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 29, 2007

Fall Guy

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

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3

But even without the biggest names, the Fall Series has not turned out to be as B-list as expected. on Sunday the Fry's crowned a worthy winner in 2003 Masters champ Mike Weir. It was the eighth victory of his career and certainly one of the most meaningful, as it ended 3½ years of frustration. Weir's triumph continued the dominant story of this Fall Series, which has been the resurgence of front-line players. the first three tournaments were won by, in order, Steve Flesch (his second victory in eight weeks), Chad Campbell (a Ryder Cupper who has finished in the top 30 on the money list for four years running) and Justin leonard (a former British open and players Championship victor). leonard's victory at the Texas open should go down as one of the best tournaments of the season, fall or otherwise.

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

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

Says the perpetually sunny Finchem, "What I'm hearing through word of mouth, through the blogs, is that the fans are enjoying getting to see some of the other players. 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 other compelling stories out here, and it's important for us to have those stories told."

Golf Channel is televising every round of the Fall Series, offering a consistent platform (to use one of Finchem's favorite words) and endless hucksterism. "We were on ESPN the last five years," says Tony Piazzi, the tournament director of the Texas Open, "and the look and feel of the coverage has definitely been upgraded. ESPN has so much programming that, promotionally, golf never got the support we or the sponsor would have liked."

The varied venues this fall have also offered pretty good theater, demanding more of the players than 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 TPC Scottsdale, site of February's FBR Open, but rather a stout, straightforward test of the long game punctuated by some wild green complexes. the feel of the two Scottsdale tournaments also couldn't be more different. the FBR is golf's version 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 about a darkened bistro. Because of Grayhawk's rugged terrain, only 17,000 tickets were printed for each round, and the crowds were so sparse that fans could get close enough to hear the players hyperventilating.

The breathing was heavy because, despite the laid-back feel on the grounds, the Fry's, like the other Fall Series events, is the backdrop to one of the most cutthroat rituals in sports, as players jostle to finish in the top 125 on the money list and thus keep their jobs for next season. Last week Alex Cejka may as well have had a 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 and 145th on the money list for the past two years. "I'm trying to just play golf, but it's always there in the back of my mind."

Cejka is an intense, fast-talking character, and he doesn't try to hide how stomach-churning it is to play for your supper. He's still haunted by one bad swing that occurred two months ago, on the 35th hole at the Barclays, the first of the Fedex Cup playoff events. He was in the middle of the fairway, 100 yards out, but a tentative approach shot led to a fatal bogey. "If I make par there, I make the cut and make enough money to earn a spot the next week in Boston," Cejka says. "Then, who knows what happens? Maybe right now I have so much money in the bank that I'm at home on the couch playing with my dogs."

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

If Cejka's haggard visage was indicative of a certain kind of Fall Series competitor, Tim Clark's scraggly beard symbolized something else entirely: the lucky players who had the luxury of treating the Fall Series as a working vacation. Of his scruff, Clark says, "I've been on holiday for a couple of weeks so I thought I'd keep it going." last month Clark had surgery to have nerves in his neck cauterized, and he is finally feeling healthy after a pain-filled year during which he nonetheless had five top seven finishes, which propelled him to 21st in the final Fedex Cup standings. "I'd love to get a victory and all that, but for me this is like spring training for next year. If anything good happens on the course, it's simply a bonus," says Clark, who received such a dividend at the Fry's with an 18th-place finish worth $60,857.

Continue Story
1 2 3