Golf fans turn out for Rory and Tiger show
ATLANTA — Matchups matter.
From football to UFC fights, people show up to see the mano-a-mano battles, the best against the best. Golf is no different. When the best players are in contention, playing for the biggest prizes, people show up in droves.
This Tour Championship is a perfect example.
Previous iterations of the FedEx Cup grand finale have attracted crowds in the dozens. Last year Luke Donald, the No.1 player in the world at the time, played the fourth hole on Friday in front of six people — and two of them were journalists.
In 2010, when Jim Furyk won, there couldn't have been more than 90 people around the final green. Granted it was raining, but the Tour needed cardboard cutouts and paid extras to keep it from being quite so embarrassingly empty.
Not this year.
According to PGA Tour officials, crowds for Thursday and Friday have broken records, and ticket sales for the weekend have exceeded all budgetary expectations.
There certainly are a lot of reasons: the weather has been great, and the Tour has flooded the Atlanta market with television advertising promoting the event. But the weather was great last year and more people attended high-school football games than came out to East Lake.
This year the place is packed. It isn't quite a major championship crowd, but it certainly is one of the best-attended Tour events of the season.
Why is that?
Luke Donald thinks he knows.
"Any time you have two of the biggest players in the game playing well you're going to attract bigger crowds," Donald said, referring to Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, who came into the Tour Championship ranked one and two in the FedEx Cup standings.
"They're both playing very well at the moment. That's going to add a lot to it. I'm not sure it's the head-to-head matchup as much as it is having both of them in the field and playing well. That is what generates interest."
Beyond those two players — McIlroy goes into the weekend tied for seventh, while Woods, after a rugged second round, is tied for 12th — a lot of fans are out because the Ryder Cup is next week in Chicago.
"With our team getting beat four of the last five Ryder Cups, and the thing being hyped up the way it is, people want to come out and see us, especially when we're playing well," said U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson.
"We're at a time in golf where we have a bunch of great players. A few years ago we had a few greats and a lot of goods. Now we have a bunch of greats. That's what makes it interesting."
Some are greater than others. Fans know it, and players know it as well.
"The Tiger-Rory matchup is creating a definite stir with the media and the fans," Rickie Fowler said. "Rory has been playing really well, and Tiger's had a great year. Golf's fun to watch right now. It's drawing people back to the game."
Tiger and Rory didn't play together on Friday and their games went decidedly different directions. Rory didn't find many fairways, but had a magical short game. He made spectacular up-and-down pars on 1, 4, and 5 before ramming home a birdie putt on the island par-three 6th. A bogey and the 14th and an eagle at the short par-five 15th moved him to three-under for the tournament, four shots out of the lead going into the weekend.
Meanwhile Tiger hit it left and right, finding rough, bunkers, and bouncing shots off of fans and hospitality tents. He shot three-over, the third-worst round of the day, beating only Nick Watney and Ernie Els.
"I'm still right there," Woods said after admitting the obvious and saying he didn't play well at all. At six shots back, anything can happen, especially on a course playing this tough.
Rory is also right there.
"Yeah, I'm only four shots back," he said, "so I've got a good chance going into the weekend."
No doubt they both have a shot at the $10 million grand prize. That was known before they hit the first shot. The pleasant surprise is how many people are cheering their every step.
"Every time you walk onto a green and you get cheered on the green, it gives you a little bit of a lift," Rory said. "Being successful and winning and people seeing me on TV, it seems like a lot of people like to root for me. It's nice to have that support."
Matchups do, indeed, matter. And this is one no golf fan is going to want to miss.