ATLANTA — With the biggest round of his career, Brandt Snedeker won something far more valuable than money Sunday.
He proved to himself he could beat the best in the world.
Snedeker knew his best chance to be the FedEx Cup champion was to win the Tour Championship, no simple task with East Lake as tough as ever and Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods going after the same prize.
Snedeker was the only player in the last five groups to break par.
He answered the final challenge with three big birdies on the back nine, building such a big lead that his final tee shot sailed into the grandstands to the left of the 18th green and it didn’t even matter. Snedeker still closed with a 2-under 68 for a three-shot win in the Tour Championship, and a $10 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup.
But this was never about money.
“I think it solidifies what I already know,” Snedeker said. “I think when I play my best golf, my best golf is some of the best in the world. I’ve never had more confidence in myself than I have the last five weeks, and I made sure that I kept telling myself that all day. I am one of the best players in the world. This is supposed to happen. It’s OK to feel nervous, and no matter what I feel today, everybody else in the field feels exactly the same way I do.
“So go out there and get it done. I did a great job of that.”
McIlroy, the best player in golf this year and the No. 1 seed going into the Tour Championship, faded early by dropping four shots in a four-hole span on the front nine. So did Woods, who already was 3 over on his round before making his first birdie on the par-5 ninth.
Snedeker wound up with a three-shot victory over Justin Rose (71) to win the Tour Championship, his second win this year and a trophy that came with $1.44 million. Add the $10 million bonus from the FedEx Cup, and it’s the richest payoff in golf.
The 31-year-old from Nashville, Tenn., calls that kind of money “crazy talk … like winning the lottery.” Far greater perspective came from a 30-minute hospital visit Sunday morning with Tucker Anderson, the son of his swing coach who was critically injured in a car accident and is in a responsive coma.
“I asked him if he thought I was going to beat Rory McIlroy, and he gave me a wink,” Snedeker said.
He beat McIlroy out of the FedEx Cup, and everyone else in his way at East Lake. Ryan Moore was tied for the lead with birdies on the 14th and 15th holes, only to make bogey on the last three holes for a 70 to tie for third with Luke Donald (67).
McIlroy had won the last two playoff events and three of his last four tournaments dating to his record eight-shot win at the PGA Championship. He still is virtually a lock to be voted PGA Tour player of the year, but he had to settle for second place — and a $3 million bonus — in the FedEx Cup.
And so ends the most successful year yet in the FedEx Cup — four wildly entertaining playoff events packed with the biggest names, even if the No. 1 player in the world wound up at No. 2.
“I’m a little disappointed, but at the same time, Brandt really deserves to win,” McIlroy said. “He played the best golf out of anyone. He knew what he needed to do. He needed to come in here and win. He controlled his own destiny, just like I did. And he was able to come and do that. So because of that, he really deserves it.”
How can Snedeker explain winning the FedEx Cup over a player who won twice during the playoffs?
“Life is all about timing,” he said, grinning.
Snedeker, who finished on 10-under 270, won for the fourth time in his career and moved into the top 10 in the world for the first time.
It also was his first time winning with a share of the lead going into the last day. In his previous three wins, he came from five shots, six shots and seven shots behind, the latter at Torrey Pines this year.
That’s what made Sunday feel more valuable than the cash. That’s what he takes to the Ryder Cup next week at Medinah, where no one can question why U.S. captain Davis Love III picked him for the team.
“I’m a lot better under pressure than I gave myself credit for,” Snedeker said. “I learned that over the last four weeks. I’ve had a lot of pressure the last four weeks and a bunch of different stuff going on in my life. To be able to focus in and do what I did was pretty impressive.”
It was an emotional week in so many ways for Snedeker, already a high-strung personality. His father, Larry, flew in to watch final round at East Lake, only the second tournament he has attended since having a liver transplant last year. And then came the visit with Tucker.
“It just made me realize … as much as I made today out be important, how unimportant it really is,” he said. “It got me focused on the small stuff, which I did a great job of doing today.”
But he delivered some big shots — a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 8, just two holes after he dumped his tee shot into the water on the par-3 sixth and made double bogey; the 18-foot birdie putt on No. 13 that gave him momentum on the back nine; and a chip-in for birdie from short of the 17th green that effectively clinched it.
“I had complete confidence in what I was doing,” Snedeker said.
Rose was within one shot on the back nine, but he never caught up after Snedeker’s big birdie on the 13th. Rose will look back on the final round and regret a series of missed putts, mostly for birdies and one for par, all of them costly. He missed four putts inside 10 feet.
“He’s mentally tough, Brandt,” Rose said. “It’s kind of a different pressure, playing for $10 million. It gets in your head more than other golf tournaments. Other golf tournaments, it’s more routine. But this week, it’s not routine. We talk about it all year long, and suddenly you have to walk the walk. And he did a great job of that today.”
Snedeker, McIlroy and Woods were separated by four shots going into the final round. All any of them had to do was win to capture the FedEx Cup.
Woods, who was four shots behind, was the first to leave the picture. He missed the first fairway with a 3-wood and made bogey, hit into the water on the par-3 sixth hole and was never a factor the rest of the way. He birdied the last hole for a 72 and finished eight shots behind in a tie for eighth.
“I just didn’t have it this weekend,” Woods said.
McIlroy, three off the lead, also came undone early. He had 11 consecutive rounds in the 60s during the FedEx Cup playoff, but with a strong breeze and a fierce golf course, that was bound to end. He sped the process along by getting caught up in the rough on No. 4 for bogey, hitting into the water on the sixth for double bogey, and driving into a bunker on the next hole for yet another bogey. He shot a 74 to finish nine strokes back.
The toughest part for Snedeker is figuring out what to do with such a windfall. The only thing he has ever splurged on was his home in Nashville, which he said was “not grandiose.” He still drives the SUV he bought when he first joined the PGA Tour in 2006.
“I’m not by any means a flashy guy,” he said. “Of anybody that I know, I do not need $11 million. So there are going to be things we can do to really help people. So that’s the way I look at it. This is unbelievable to be financially stable for the rest of my career. As long as I’m not an idiot, I should be fine, really. I really think we can make a difference and help a lot of people out in Nashville and Tennessee and the surrounding areas.”
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press