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Five things we learned this week

9/19/2011 - Golf

Tiger's special treatment

Fred Couples, the U.S. Presidents Cup team captain, said in a conference call on Sunday night that Brandt Snedeker, Bill Haas and Keegan Bradley were the leading candidates for his final captain's pick. He announced the 10 automatic qualifiers who were finalized at the end of the BMW Championship. The 51-year-old, 15-time PGA Tour winner also defended his choice of Tiger Woods with his other pick.

"The people that I have talked to, a good percentage, like the pick," said Couples, who played in four Presidents Cups. "There's a handful that don't. But it's all really irrelevant to me.

"Sometimes it gets a little loose that, you know, we are certainly an individual sport, but if Tiger Woods was our main guy, and got injured and didn't play and didn't get any points at the end of the year, if he's the No. 1 quarterback for your team, and some other quarterback comes in there and leads you in the playoffs and you're healthy, Tom Brady is the guy that is going to then take over after he's been out six weeks with an injury. That's the way I looked at it with Tiger."

That's a valid explanation and it says a lot about the respect that Couples and other players still have for Tiger's record. I have been as hard as anyone on the pick, but there is no disputing Tiger's reputation as one of the most intimidating figures in sports history.

Couples obviously took all of that into account with his decision. His choice of Tiger doesn't seem cynical now -- just realistic and safe. But what's implicit in his statements is the simple truth that no one else but Tiger would have gotten this kind of preferential treatment.

"Is he playing great golf as of a month ago? Of course not," Couples said. "We are all pretty attuned people. We all realize that. But he had 2 1/2, three months to work on his game. I talked to him a lot. And I know he's working hard. And I'm relying on him to have a good time and play well in Australia, and I think he's a guy that does not like to not play well. I think he'll be ready."

Couples also said that he announced the selection of Tiger early on because he thought that it was fair to let the players know that they were playing for one spot. It's going to come down to how they all play in Atlanta.

"I want these guys to know that the Tour Championship is still deciding my second pick but 12th spot on the team," Couples said.

Embrace LPGA youth movement

With a 5-stroke win at the Navistar LPGA Classic in Prattville, Ala. on Sunday, 16-year-old Lexi Thompson made the case for membership on the LPGA Tour. She wouldn't want to make a big deal of the little factoid that she's now the youngest winner in LPGA Tour history. Age is just a number for her. It's a preoccupation that worried adults have about her playing golf so well at such a young age.

The home-schooled Floridian decimated a strong field that included the ladies' No. 1 player, Yani Tseng, who has won five times in 2011. By a wide margin, Thompson is a better player right now than all but a couple of the 12 women on the U.S. Solheim Cup team. She joins Stacey Lewis and Brittany Lincicome as the only American women to win this season on the LPGA Tour.

The LPGA Tour should quickly grant her membership, saving her from the indignity of having to play two more stages of its qualifying tournament. In the meantime, Thompson will have to petition the tour for an exemption to its 18-year-old age requirement.

The age requirement is in place to protect young players, who might not be mature enough for the emotional and financial pressures of professional golf. It's there to save young kids from burnout and the kind of sordid, drug-related escapades that stunted Jennifer Capriati's tennis career.

But Thompson should never have had to ask for appeals and exemptions to play the tour full time. After turning pro in mid-June of last year, she had a tie for 10th at the U.S. Women's Open. Thompson proved she's not only a star in the making but an excellent ambassador of the game.

Women's golf -- and specifically LPGA commissioner Michael Whan, should embrace youth -- as teenagers like Thompson could spark new interest in the game. Thompson should be on all of Whan's promotional materials.

She's handled adversity and setbacks like a veteran. At the Avnet LPGA Classic in May, she had a share of the lead going into the final round but shot a 78 to finish 19th.

"It definitely was [a learning experience]," Thompson said after the round. "I'm only 16, so I'm just learning every tournament."

Her best finish prior to the win on Sunday was a tie for second last year at the Evian Masters. She played a bunch of events on the Fuzion Minor League Golf Tour, where she beat the men in February for her first pro win of any kind. On the LPGA Tour this season, her play has been sporadic. She has missed four of nine cuts.

It's true she's young, but it's not like she's making a go of it by herself. She has a close-knit family of people who understand both the game and the rigors of tour life. Her father, Scott, was her caddie this week. Her brother Nicholas plays on the Nationwide Tour and another brother, Curtis, is on the golf team at LSU.

It's too early to say if she will become a rival of Tseng, Lincicome and Paula Creamer and possibly a multiple major winner. Because at 16, she is literally still growing and learning the intricacies of being a professional athlete. All that's for sure is that she's an LPGA Tour winner and that should go a long way in her case to play every week with the best women golfers in the world.

For now she is keeping it simple. Asked afterward what she planned to do with the $195,000 first prize, she said, "I have no idea. I mean, I already have a car, so I don't know what I'm going to do with it. Just going to have fun and relax and hang out with my family and celebrate."

Waiting can be painful

Justin Rose took his third career win at the BMW Championship on Sunday on the tough Dubsdread with a closing even-par 71 for a 2-shot win over John Senden. With the win, Rose jumps to third in the playoff standings going into next week's finale at the Tour Championship in Atlanta.

But for most of the tournament, his steady handling of the much-criticized Rees Jones redesign was overshadowed by all the subplots, which started right at the top of the leaderboard. The top three finishers -- Rose, Senden and Ogilvy -- were all outside the top 30 at the beginning of the week, but played their way in to Atlanta with great weeks.

Then there were all the guys sitting around the bubble at 30th position -- Camilo Villegas, Martin Laird and Bo Van Pelt among them. Villegas tied for the low round of the day with a 5-under 66, but a bogey on the 72nd hole cost him a chance at that last spot -- finishing 33rd. Laird made a bomb of a putt at the 72nd hole to end up in 31st place.

Van Pelt couldn't watch. The 36-year-old Oklahoma State grad didn't know where he would end up, finishing in a tie for 56th after an opening round 5-over 76. He ran off to Chicago's O'Hare Airport to catch a flight. When it was canceled, he watched the Patriots-Chargers game instead of watching the end of the BMW Championship.

"There was nothing that I could do at that point," Van Pelt said. "My friends were calling me and texting with updates.

"Villegas was the one. I saw how well he was playing. But after he made the bogey on 18, I thought I might have a chance. But I was expecting anything to happen after seeing the top three guys on the leaderboard get inside the top 30. What are the chances of that happening?"

This is the second year in the row that Van Pelt has gotten the final spot after playing poorly in the tournament leading up to Atlanta. On the 72nd hole, he made a tricky 5-foot par putt that probably saved his season.

"I've got to stop doing this to myself," Van Pelt said.

Van Pelt and the others made for compelling subplots, but I'm not sure they served the best interests of the golf tournament.

The BMW Championship and Cog Hill never seemed to recover from all the injury it received from the criticism of Dubsdread course, which played very difficult. It's hard to say if the cream rose to the top this week when you have some of your points leaders shooting 77s.

Already overcast by football and the playoff subplots, Sunday afternoon was marked by steady rain. Perhaps there is no way of getting away from the third tournament of the FedEx Cup playoff as that dramatic last chance to get into the Super Bowl of the PGA Tour, but there are a lot of memorable playoffs. Dwight Clark's touchdown catch from Joe Montana in the '82 NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys easily overshadows anything that happened in the 49ers-Bengals Super Bowl.

The FedEx Cup playoffs, for as long as we have them, should strive to make each tournament memorable and exciting and not just a part of a buildup to that final event in Atlanta. The tour could do that by making all the courses fun and easy for the players.

For Tour Championship, 30 is not enough

The Tour Championship deserves more than 30 players. At the BMW Championship, three players played their way into Atlanta and three played their way out. Forty guys have to wait until the start of the Fall Series to tee it up again. All four winners of the cup have been top-10 players.

The FedEx Cup has been a very successful way at keeping the best players focused very late in the season, but it's not exactly an opportunity for a wild card to win it all. I don't mean the last guy in the top 30 winning in Atlanta and taking the $10 million. I'm talking about a guy who starts way back in the pack.

Anything is possible and the points system rewards great play, regardless of pedigree, but wouldn't it be fun to see them expand the Tour Championship field to the top 50 players? It would make for a more interesting event.

An easy argument against expansion would be that the players should just play better if they want to get into the top 30. It's prestigious company. But the expansion of the playoffs over the years in basketball, football and baseball hasn't dampened fan interests. The cream still rises to the top.

Another Aussie for Norman?

If you saw John Senden at a PGA Tour event you might mistake him for an FBI agent or one of those security guys that follows the top players around the course. Of the dozen or so Australians that seem to show up every week on the PGA Tour, the 40-year-old, 6-foot-3 Senden is probably one of the least known among American golf fans. But he's got a lot of game. His second place at the BMW Championship vaulted him to ninth in the standings.

But more importantly his performance must have caught the eye of Greg Norman, the International Team captain for the Presidents Cup, which is being held in Melbourne in November. Norman already has three Australians on his team, but Senden would be a very popular and timely choice as he beat a lot of good players this week on a very tough golf course.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.