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Column: Biggest award at Tour Championship is being there

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ATLANTA (AP) — The Tour Championship is about more than just the cash, no matter how much is on the line.

It was that way from the start.

Curtis Strange was part of the inaugural 30-man field in 1987 for what then was called the Nabisco Championships of Golf. The purse was $2 million, the largest of the year, and the winner’s share of $360,000 was more than twice what any of the majors paid. There also was a $1 million bonus pool for a season-long competition.

That’s not what Strange remembers, though.

He finished 30th at Oak Hills in San Antonio, and the $32,000 check for finishing last — his sixth-largest paycheck of the year — was of little consolation.

“I dropped out of the top 10 in scoring average, and it cost me player of the year,” Strange said Tuesday. “I didn’t make a putt, got (ticked) off, all of the above. You know how it is. But I got them the next year.”

Strange won in a playoff in 1988 at Pebble Beach, won player of the year and became the first player in PGA Tour history to win more than $1 million in a year.

“The money was huge back in the day,” Strange said. “Just like it is now.”

The winner of the Tour Championship this week at East Lake gets $1,620,000.

If he happens to win the FedEx Cup, throw in an additional $10 million.

What hasn’t changed in more than three decades is the prestige of being at the Tour Championship.

It felt like an All-Star game then. It’s like that now.

Only three players at the Tour Championship this year won a major, the dream of every golfer. Short of that, the next goal is to win a PGA Tour event. And if that doesn’t work out, a mediocre year can always be salvaged by having a parking spot and a tee time at East Lake.

It’s the one regular PGA Tour event where the winner is not guaranteed a chance to defend his title. Xander Schauffele nearly found that out the hard way. He was No. 41 in the FedEx Cup standings until a tie for third in the BMW Championship moved him to No. 18 and gave him a spot at East Lake.

“Getting to the Tour Championship is a big deal,” Schauffele said Tuesday. “If you end up here, no matter how you got here — a bunch of top 10s or consistent play or a few high finishes with no wins — it’s still a successful year.”

Tiger Woods used to say it can’t be a great year without winning a major. He never would have said it could be considered a good year without winning anything. This is a new Woods, however, and his first appearance at East Lake after four injury-ravaged years feels like a big deal.

“At the end of the season, to say that I made it back to the Tour Championship after what I’ve been through is a pretty good accomplishment,” Woods said. “To make the Ryder Cup team and get back to East Lake, that was a pretty big goal at the beginning of the year.”

No need explaining that to Jordan Spieth. He’s not here for the first time, and it stung.

The Tour Championship started out by rotating among courses like Pebble Beach and Pinehurst No. 2, Olympic Club and Southern Hills. Now the permanent home is East Lake, and it has become a destination.

Just like always.

“The goal for the year was to get to the Tour Championship,” said Mark Calcavecchia, who played in the first four editions and 14 overall. “Winning is the first goal. If that doesn’t happen, you need to play good enough to make it to the last tournament. You’re one of 30 guys there. It’s a little bit of an ego thing. It’s nice to be part of a select group.”

Keegan Bradley had not been part of that group since 2013, so imagine how he felt last week at the BMW Championship.

Rain threatened to cut short the tournament to 54 holes. Bradley was in sixth place, three shots out of the lead. If the final round was a wash, Bradley would have moved to No. 30 in the FedEx Cup and returned to East Lake. He was torn.

“Truthfully, I was really fixated on making the Tour Championship, and I knew if we didn’t play, I was in it,” he said. “So it was a really weird position to be in.”

They played. He shot 64 and won in a playoff.

Even with the trophy at his side, he was asked if he would have been in favor of a washout knowing how it ended.

“To be honest with you, I might have,” Bradley said. “Just because it’s a game-changer for a player like me … to get in the Tour Championship.”

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