For some, Tour Championship means more than millions in prizes

ATLANTA -- It seems fairly obvious that the 30 players who made it to the Tour Championship at East Lake all want to be here.

Certainly, there are higher levels of enthusiasm for some after a long year and numerous big tournaments. But in general, the idea of playing for an $8.75 million purse ($1.575 million to the winner) and millions more in prize money -- including a $10 million bonus for the winner of the FedEx Cup -- is a pretty sweet deal and a goal worth pursuing.

There are some players who expect to be here, such as Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler.

There are some players who figured to be here but are not, such as Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson.

And there are some who are here and are truly relishing it, regardless of how they fare over the weekend.

Specifically, Pat Perez, Tony Finau and Patrick Cantlay are thrilled to be here because they've qualified for the Tour Championship for the first time.

And there are veterans such as Webb Simpson and Gary Woodland who appreciate their appearance more than they might have in other years -- and have managed to put themselves in contention.

"I'm definitely way more thankful to be here than I was the four years in a row I came here, and it's because it's hard to get here," said Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion who missed the Tour Championship the past two years. "I feel like the competition on the PGA Tour is better every year. Pursues are bigger, there's FedEx Cup points, guys are hungrier than ever.

"And next season starts my 10th season, so I'm not that young anymore. So it felt a lot more special this year after missing two in a row and knowing that I had a tough mountain to climb. I just started playing well the last few months and so it feels great to be back."

Simpson shot 3-under-par 67 on Friday to move into a tie for the lead with Justin Thomas and Paul Casey. Woodland also shot 67, and he is another shot back and in a tie for fourth with Patrick Reed, Justin Rose and Jon Rahm.

For Cantlay and Finau, the reasons for wanting to be here are more basic. They qualified for their first Tour Championship, thus ensuring finishing among the top 30 in FedEx Cup points. That alone means a big perk: spots in the first three major championships next year, including the Masters.

Cantlay managed to do it playing in just 11 tournaments this year, after battling injuries for the past several seasons.

"I picked my spots and I played really well this year up to this point," said Cantlay, who rebounded from an opening-round 74 by shooting 66 on Friday. "I feel like I'm just getting started, just starting to get rolling and getting comfortable playing. I'm playing really well. My game is in good shape."

Same for Perez, who at age 41 is the oldest player in the field. He qualified for the Tour Championship for the first time in his career.

At 11th in the FedEx Cup standings, Perez would have to win the tournament and have a slew of things happen just right to be crowned overall champion. But just getting to East Lake is special enough, and he's not sweating the computations.

"I didn't think it was going to take me 16 years to get here, but it has and I'm just going to enjoy every minute of it," said Perez, who is tied for 11th after consecutive 68s. "It's awesome to be here.

"I have such a different perspective because I wasn't playing last year (due to a shoulder injury). So the last thing on my mind was ever trying to get here. Obviously, that's always the goal, but it' so far down the line. ... I can't imagine the fact that I'm here, for one, and have done it at 41, coming back after surgery. It's just fantasy land."

Perez, who is ranked 33rd in the world, won his second career PGA Tour title in November at the Mayakoba Classic, while playing on a medical extension that he received after missing most of the 2015-16 season because of shoulder surgery.

Despite missing the cut at both the U.S. Open and The Open, Perez had one of his best seasons, with the win, six top-10s and 13 top-25s. He has played in the FedEx Cup playoffs 10 times, with his best finish 44th. He finished tied for 34th, tied for sixth and tied for 12th at the first three playoff events this year.

"I'll enjoy it all the way around," Perez said. "I'd like to enjoy it while walking in the fairway and not in the rough too."

Woodland made it to the Tour Championship for the fifth time, hanging onto the 28th position after beginning the playoffs there. It was somewhat remarkable that Woodland was able to sustain any level of play after a tumultuous year off the course.

His wife, Gabby, was pregnant with twins and lost one of the babies around the time of the WGC-Match Play. The other baby, Jaxson, was born June 23, but premature.

That, clearly, has made it a difficult year emotionally for Woodland, who nonetheless finds himself in contention after two rounds at East Lake.

"This is definitely the most rewarding year being here," Woodland said. "I got off to a great start earlier this year and my game was as good as it's been. Then I obviously had to battle through the summer. But the game never left me; it's just that mentally I wasn't always there. I've seen some signs of putting it all together."

With a big purse and a good bit of bonus money at stake, this is certainly a good week to do it.