Commentary

Will FedEx pressure come to bear?

Updated: September 21, 2013, 5:05 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- They always say it's not about the money, but let's face it: It's about the money. How can the FedEx Cup playoffs be about anything but the cold, hard cash at stake?

Sure, these are prestigious tournaments with great fields, starting with the Barclays a month ago and concluding Sunday at the Tour Championship. There are top-notch venues at every one of them, the game's best competing every week.

But to make them stand out, to differentiate them from the regular events on the PGA Tour, to give them a uniqueness not even enjoyed by the major championships, money became the hook.

Since the FedEx Cup's inception in 2007, a $35 million bonus pool has been at stake, with the money trickling down all the way to players who don't qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. The winner gets a staggering $10 million, with $3 million to the second-place finisher and small amounts doled out all the way to 150th.

And this is in addition to the $8 million purses being played for throughout the playoffs, with $1.44 million going to the winner.

So tell me Henrik Stenson won't be thinking about the potential $11.44 million that could be coming his way Sunday night?

Players all say they don't think about prize money, and in truth, it's best if they don't. Shooting the scores and worrying about the rewards later is always the proper approach. Human nature being what it is, putting it aside is not easy.

"For me, it's more important to leave here with two trophies," Stenson said. "I mean, at the end of the day, it's just money isn't it? I care more about the two trophies than I do the $11 million, that's for sure."

And yet, therein falls the pressure. Winning any professional golf tournament comes with stresses, and trying to capture a major championship comes with the most. But the prestige of these tournaments, mostly, lies in the obscene prize money and knowing that maybe, perhaps just slightly, these guys are having a tough time breathing and hitting golf shots at the same time.

Stenson, for example, had a 9-shot lead for a time Saturday, having played the front nine in 31 strokes. He was cruising, and the Tour Championship appeared all but over. But four bogeys on the back nine turned a runaway into just a four-stroke advantage over Dustin Johnson heading into the final round.

Was it the money Stenson was pondering? Unlikely. He has been around long enough, and captured enough big-money tournaments to have put that behind him. He had to play his final nine holes in a steady rain, and the conditions became a bit difficult.

Still, how do you not think about millions of dollars -- even if you make millions?

Stenson, for one, has admitted to losing a substantial sum of money in the Stanford Financial crisis that saw Allen Stanford go to prison because he was running a Ponzi scheme. Stenson had invested in the company in 2008 and a year later learned that all of his funds were frozen. How much he lost is a matter of personal business, but you can surmise it was not a small sum.

And when Stenson's game went into free fall soon after winning the 2009 Players Championship -- he dropped to 230th in the world before climbing back into the top 10 this year -- it was easy to wonder if the financial hit was weighing on him.

So while he might not say so, how can the thought of a $10 million bonus not cross his mind?

A year ago, FedEx Cup champ Brandt Snedeker made the good point that playing for money would always leave you scrounging at the bottom of the money list.

"You play to win championships and the money comes with that, which is great," Snedeker said.

Tiger Woods, who has twice won the FedEx cup and has accumulated more than $110 million in prize money on the PGA Tour, has long maintained that thinking about the paydays has never been productive.

"I always figured if I would win golf tournaments, it would take care of itself," Woods said. "I was fortunate enough to win early in my career."

Ironically, counting the money has always been one of the ways golfers keep score. Low score wins but money totals have long determined playing privileges and major exemptions. Now on the PGA Tour, that has shifted to FedEx Cup points, but the tour still keeps a money tally (Woods will win the money title for the 10th time Sunday) and determines spots on the PGA Tour based on money earned on the Web.com Tour.

Johnson has virtually no chance at winning the FedEx Cup -- he'd need Woods to finish 29th and Stenson to drop down several spots -- but you can bet he was glad to hang onto the 30th spot in the FedEx Cup standings last week after missing the cut.

That meant he qualified for the Tour Championship, and a minimum of $128,000 for showing up this week. And who doesn't think that is significant?

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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