Playoff finish had chance to be great, but format left it woefully short

ATLANTA -- The putt looked good all the way, with the proper pace and path to the hole, only to horseshoe around the cup and somehow stay out. If this had been to win the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus, we'd have had some scene Sunday at East Lake Golf Club.

As it played out, Vijay Singh's birdie effort was virtually meaningless, as a smattering of fans in the grandstand surrounding the 18th green groaned, while the real action was nine holes behind him.

That's where the good stuff was taking place, where Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson, Camilo Villegas and Anthony Kim were locked in a tight and compelling race to win the Tour Championship, where the FedEx aficionados could only dream their Cup was being decided.

For a tournament that was panned for its lack of excitement, the Tour Championship sure delivered some high drama in the last meaningful PGA Tour event of the year, with Villegas winning his second straight tournament, this time in a sudden-death playoff over Garcia.

If it's any consolation -- and it should be -- Villegas edged Garcia for the $3 million second-place payoff in the FedEx Cup (Sergio gets a $2 million bonus for third), in addition to winning the $1.26 million first prize. Had Garcia won, he'd have finished second and Villegas third.

Meanwhile, Singh was being congratulated on his $10 million haul despite never breaking 70 during four rounds, never contending for the tournament title and finishing tied for 22nd. With an hour to go in the tournament, Singh was collecting the hardware from PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem in a strange, made-for-TV ceremony.

That scenario was always a danger in this new-fangled system that has the PGA Tour crowning a season-long champion on the same day it gives a trophy to the winner of one of its supposedly prestigious tournaments.

What happens when the winner of the FedEx Cup is not the winner of the Tour Championship?

Tiger Woods took care of those concerns last year, when he won the Tour Championship in a rout and secured the first FedEx Cup trophy -- although it was almost impossible for him to not win it.

Singh was unable to duplicate the feat this week, and it's no knock on him. He did the heavy lifting in this quest a month ago, first when he knocked off Garcia in a sudden-death playoff to capture the Barclays and then he won the Deutsche Bank Championship a week later.

Those victories gave him what turned out to be a nearly insurmountable lead, making this an awkward week for the Fijian.

"It was really weird," said Singh, 45, who will receive $9 million of the bonus in cash and $1 million in deferred compensation. "You make a bogey, you get congratulated. You make a double-bogey, you get congratulated. It didn't really matter what I made. It took away the focus of playing this tournament. I tried really hard. When I left to come over here to play, I said I'm going to keep focused. But that's as far as I got."

Who could blame him?

Even for Singh, who has made more than $60 million in official PGA Tour earnings, a $10 million bonus is a huge deal. And all he had to do this week was show up and finish. He joked that he had hoped to make all pars Sunday, so that playing partner Bubba Watson would have an easier time of keeping his scorecard. The idea was to not get disqualified, and in that regard Singh was a champion Sunday.

Now, if the tour's FedEx Cup honchos can figure out a way to make this four-tournament playoff run compelling to the end -- sort of like the end of this tournament -- then the FedEx Cup will be worth talking about in a positive way.

"We've got to have a climactic finish," said Finchem, who no doubt would have loved to have had Villegas and Garcia come to East Lake's 233-yard, par-3 18th with $10 million at stake in that playoff.

At least they had second place and the $3 million bonus on the line, and you simply could not have asked for a better leaderboard, with three-time major winner Mickelson trying to keep up with the 20-something trio of Garcia, 28, Villegas, 26, and Kim, 23. All four are ranked among the top 20 in the world, with Villegas about to join the others among the top 10.

The Colombian was 5 shots back of Garcia at the start of the day and seemingly out of it after he double-bogeyed the par-3 sixth and followed with a bogey at the seventh. But he played the final 11 holes in 5 under par and shot the day's best round, a 66.

Kim and Mickelson each had birdie putts at the 18th that would have put them in a playoff, while Garcia had one worth $4.26 million -- the $3 million bonus and the $1.26 million for first place in the tournament -- that just slid by the cup in regulation. His poor tee shot at the 18th during the playoff allowed Villegas to win with a par.

"Honestly, if you look back and think about it, every system could have provided a very exciting finish," said Jim Furyk, who tied for sixth in the tournament and ended up fifth in the FedEx Cup standings, earning a $1 million bonus. "You just had a player ... Tiger Woods goes out and wins twice and finishes second [last year]. You had a player who separated himself. This year even though the system was totally different, it could have provided a really exciting finish. It did not."

But it could have.

What if Singh didn't make his putt on top of Garcia during the playoff at the Barclays? The Tour Championship would have been far more compelling, with six players in the mix. Garcia, as it turned out, lost two playoff events in playoffs.

What if Villegas had not missed the cut at the Barclays? He missed by a single shot, then tied for third at the Deutsche Bank, won the BMW Championship and won here. Just making the cut would have -- in retrospect -- given him enough points to win the FedEx Cup.

"That was an expensive cut," Villegas said, smiling, when informed of what it could have possibly meant.

"The FedEx Cup is great for the game," he said. "We need to get the points system better, and I'm not saying this because I finished second. I've been saying that since day one. We just need to make it fun for the fans and fun for us."

Sunday was certainly fun for Villegas, who grabbed his second victory in as many tournaments. As for Singh, well ... shooting 70 and finishing hours before the leaders never felt so good.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.