Harrington and Woods among contenders for 'richest prize in sport'

In the week in which the European Tour announced it was having to slash back the prize money at their season-ending spectacular to the giddying tune of $5m, Padraig Harrington will have a shot at winning more than twice that amount at the equivalent climatic tournament in America. So much for the financial crisis about to bring golf to its knees.

Indeed, the only thing that looks likely to bring golf to its knees in the forthcoming days in Atlanta are pockets which will bulge so outrageously they will surely not even have room for tee-pegs. Some 30 PGA Tour professionals have made it through to the Tour Championship, the final of the four events which form the FedEx Cup. And get this, the poor sap who finishes last in the standings takes home $175,000. Not to mention whatever he picks up in the tournament itself.

Yes, that's right there are two purses for the pros to compete for at East Lake Golf Course - the $35m FedEx Cup bonus and the $7.5m for the Tour Championship proper. The latter will go along way to dictating the former and in this respect the competitors will have to be even more calculating than usual out on the course. As a qualified accountant Harrington will have no problems on this score, or, indeed, in realising the financial relevance of his score.

In fact, the maths are relatively straight-forward if he is to collect what the Americans like to call "the richest prize in sport". He has to triumph in Georgia and hope that Tiger Woods does not finish in outright second. Despite Woods's continued predominance, his chance is alive. As the only player who has finished in the top 10 of all three FedEx Cup events so far, Harrington has the form and the confidence. He also possesses the incentive.

Yesterday he claimed it would turn 2009 into "a positive year" after it threatened to be so forlorn as he ripped up his swing and lost all semblance of form. But he was honest enough to admit the other reasons why it would be precious. "There are 10 million of them," he laughed. "I do believe with the money that's on the line this week it would have an effect on the 18th hole. Actually it would $11 and a half million in all. That's a lot of money. I could stand here and tell you, 'no, the money wouldn't affect me - I wouldn't think about it at all'. But I'd be telling lies."

The Dubliner is not an ostentatious man by nature - anything but - yet he sees no reason for golf to be embarrassed of these staggering sums. "I believe they should give out the cash on the 18th green," said Harrington. "Just sit it there just to have a good look at it. It would be great, like the World Series of Poker. We could take it in a wheelbarrow up to the clubhouse. Anything that falls out, it's the caddie's."

His attitude to this extreme dollar-fest reminds me of the press conference at Wentworth a few years ago when the first prize at the World Match Play had just reached £1m, and Ernie Els was asked for his views. Asked one inquistor : "Ernie, two questions. A. Do you think this a ridiculous amount for one man to be winning for knocking around a little white ball? And B. Would you feel entirely comfortable with being that man?" To which Els replied: "Yes and yes."

To be ashamed would be to deny the event's meaning. When the play-off notion was first dreamt up by Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour's commissioner, he envisaged the finale as rivalling the majors for tension. He figured the only way this could happen is by substituting the prestige and tradition with a mid-blowing cheque, one which make the viewer sit up and scream "how much?" as Harrington hovers his £11.5m bum-clencher. Except it did not turn out that way. It was always going to involve a complex system and for the first couple of years it was possible for a golfer to have the $10m in the bag before the "decider" had even teed off.

Vijay Singh did just that last year - Finchem handing over the row of noughts as the Tour Championship was still be being played out - while the year previous Woods felt so sure of prevailing, he skipped one of the play-off events. Evidently this was not quite the mad dash to the end of the rainbow, Finchem had in mind. For Woods and Singh it was more of a stroll to the cashpoint. And just as exciting to watch.

They have updated the process this year, so radically that any player in Atlanta has, at least, a mathematical hope of netting the $10m on Sunday. In truth, however, those such as England's Luke Donald, down in 28th place, must win and then pray a collection of numbers fall in place, the order on which Camelot wouldn’t give odds. Perhaps just the top eight have a realistic shot and, in sixth, Harrington is Europe's only hope of bringing home the loot.

Some of yesterday's headlines suggested the beleaguered golfing continent is desperate for it. Hardly. In two months time, the top 60 European tour players will be competing for $15m in Dubai and despite some reports the Tour is adamant their own curtain-dropping wallet-opener is safe for five years. Everything is relative. Except, it seems, prime-time golf and the recession.

FedEx Cup top 10 (points reset after last event; US unless stated)): 1 T Woods 2,500pts; 2 S Stricker 2,250; J Furyk 2,000; Z Johnson 1,800; 5 H Slocum 1,600; P Harrington 1,400; 7 S O’Hair, 1,200; 8 S Verplank 1,000; 9 K Perry 800; 10 J Dufner, 600. Others: 14, P Mickelson 420; 22 E Els (SA) 290; L Donald (Eng) 230.

Tour Championship: The winner will receive 2,500pts, 1500 for 2nd, 1000 for 3rd, 750 for 4th, 550 for 5th, with a sliding scale all the way down for 205pts for 30th.

What they have to do win: Anyone in the top five only has to win to be sure of $10m FedEx Cup bonus. If Harrington wins then Woods has to finish no better than a tie for second.