Jim Furyk could not have asked for a more enjoyable day at East Lake – on and off the golf course.
It started with writing seven 3s on his scorecard to start the round, which eventually added to a 29 on the front nine. And despite missing a 5-foot par putt on the final hole that caused him to slam his yardage book onto the table in the scoring trailer, he still had a 6-under 64 and a one-shot lead in the Tour Championship.
More fun followed when he walked into the press center, and the Ryder Cup was among the first topics.
In some corners, there is a feeling that Furyk should not have been a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup. Even though he has qualified for every U.S. team – Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup – since 1997, he is the only American on this year’s squad that has not won this year.
Furyk does not know who is criticizing the selection, nor does he care. But he was more than happy to talk about it.
”I was so hoping someone would ask me that,” he said.
What followed was a tough defense of himself as a player and the teammates he’ll have around him next week at Medinah. The eight players who qualified all had a voice in the selections of captain Davis Love III. So did Love’s assistants. And the fact Furyk, who was 11th in the standings, was a sure pick made it clear to him that players wanted him on the team and that was all that mattered to him.
”Look at the way I play golf – the way I swing the golf club and grip the putter,” he said. ”Look at the way I go about my business. I don’t hit the ball very far. I’m short. If I really cared what the critics thought the last 19 years, I really wouldn’t be here. … My teammates know that I’m going to give 110 percent. They know I have a lot of heart. I have a lot of grit, and that’s what I’m going to do.
”But I’ve never felt like I have to justify myself.”
All he cares about is winning the Tour Championship, with an outside shot at the FedEx Cup title and its $10 million bonus. Furyk was at 7-under 133 on a course where he won just two years ago, giving him a one-shot lead over Justin Rose.
Rose, who shared the 18-hole lead with Tiger Woods, made four birdies on the back nine and holed a 6-foot birdie putt on the 18th for a 68.
Woods went the other direction.
The lone bright spot was a bunker shot that was among the best he has ever hit. With a quarter of the ball below the surface of the sand from a fairway bunker on the third hole, Woods caught a 9-iron so perfectly that it came out low and ran across the green to 6 feet for birdie.
The rest of the day was forgettable – a muffed pitch from a bad lie on No. 8 that led to double bogey, and a series of bad swings that put him in bad positions on the back nine and led to four bogeys. He had to scramble for par on the 18th for a 73, his worst score at East Lake in 14 years, dating to a 76 in the second round in 1998.
”I didn’t play very good today. Didn’t hit it very good, and definitely didn’t putt well,” Woods said. ”So it was a struggle all day.”
Woods was six shots behind.
Bo Van Pelt made three bogeys on the last four holes and still had a 68 that put him two shots behind at 135, along with Masters champion Bubba Watson (66). Dustin Johnson, who had to summon his college teammate from Coastal Carolina to caddie for him when his regular had back problems, had a 67 and was another shot back, along with Georgia Tech alum Matt Kuchar (69).
Rory McIlroy, who is leading the FedEx Cup, had a 68 and was only four shots behind. He still has the best shot at the $10 million bonus, though he remains far more interested in winning his third straight tournament, and fourth in his last five starts. McIlroy was fortunate not to tumble down the leaderboard, but he scrambled for par on three of five holes at the start of his round, and made up plenty of ground with a 40-foot eagle putt on the 15th.
”I just have to try to think of my standing in this golf tournament, not really think about anything else,” he said.
Furyk hasn’t won since he turned his cap around in the rain, saved par from a bunker and won the Tour Championship in 2010, along with the FedEx Cup.
He lost in a four-man playoff at Innisbrook. He was tied for the lead at the U.S. Open with three holes to play – two of them par 5s – until he hooked his tee shot into the trees and made bogey on the 16th. And he led at Firestone from the opening round until chopping up the final hole for a double bogey to lose by one.
”I think that my personality is that I’m 75 percent mad that I haven’t closed the door,” he said. ”I have to be reminded, whether it’s my teacher or my caddie or my wife or whoever it may be, that `You’re playing well. Be patient. Let it happen.’ Instead of the silver lining in the cloud, I’m definitely tougher on myself than anyone else.”
He’ll feel better if he can go to Medinah next week with his 17th career win, though that won’t determine how he plays. Furyk doesn’t read much about golf, figuring the good stories might go to his head and the bad stories might annoy him. So he’s not sure who feels he was a questionable pick.
Woods certainly didn’t feel that it was.
”It’s not that controversial to us as players,” Woods said. ”But to some it might be who are outside the team. … He’s been so solid and so rock steady. He’s a great team player, and he’s playing well. As I said, he’s two swings away from being in the top five in points.”
Those two swings – a tee shot at Olympic, a 7-iron at Firestone – actually would have put Furyk at No. 1 on the Ryder Cup points list. Either way, he’ll be at Medinah. For now, his focus is on two more days at East Lake.