It’s late in the season, and there’s meaningful golf to be played

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It’s late in the season, and there’s meaningful golf to be played

PGA Tour

It’s late in the season, and there’s meaningful golf to be played

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – It really wasn’t that long ago that the PGA Tour season would end with a distant fizzle, the culmination to the long season fading away weakly and insignificantly, like the final round of the NFL Draft.

So 11 years ago, under the guidance of Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour decided to go a different route, and created the FedEx Cup. The competition boasts four significant tournaments at season’s end – playoff events – that offer a $35 million bonus pool, with a $10 million bounty to the winner. Even for players who own hotel-sized mansions on the beach, have several Ferraris in the driveway and bells-and-whistles boats docked outside, it was enough to get their collective attention.

So here we are, with the 11th FedEx Cup Playoffs beginning on Thursday with the Northern Trust, which tees off at Glen Oaks Club, a venue new to the New York/New Jersey playoff rota. The best news for golf fans? With four weeks left in the 2016-17 season, the best players will keep on playing, and there still is a good deal at stake.

Who will rise to win the FedEx Cup? Who will emerge as PGA Tour player of the year? Which first-year player will strengthen his grip on PGA Tour rookie-of-the-year honors? And who will play well enough to earn their way onto the U.S. and International Presidents Cup teams?

Most importantly, will Phil Mickelson play well enough these next two weeks to make the U.S. squad?

Questions, questions, questions. And four big events that will help to sort everything out.

The defending FedEx Cup champion is Rory McIlroy, who sealed that victory with a thrilling triumph over Ryan Moore in the Tour Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake last autumn. McIlroy, who has been slowed by a troublesome rib injury this season, didn’t know if he’d compete in this year’s playoffs, but he’s here at The Northern Trust, one of 120 players who will tee it up. (Five eligible players will not be competing, including Masters champion Sergio Garcia (rest) and Adam Scott, who is home awaiting the birth of his second child. In addition, Brandt Snedeker, Scott Piercy and Dominic Bozzelli are injured.)

The player of the year candidates are seemingly down to four: major winners Justin Thomas (four wins) and Jordan Spieth (three); Dustin Johnson (three early-season wins); and Hideki Matsuyama, who enters the playoffs as the top-seeded player. He owns three victories on the season, including two World Golf Championships events (HSBC Champions and Bridgestone Invitational).

Behind Matsuyama, rounding out the top five in regular-season FedEx Cup points, in order: Thomas, Spieth, Johnson and Rickie Fowler. Any player who is in the top five heading into the Tour Championship at East Lake will control his own fate. Win the Tour Championship, and the FedEx Cup’s $10 million winner’s bounty is part of the package.

Steve Stricker and Nick Price, captains in the upcoming Presidents Cup to be staged at next month’s Liberty National in New Jersey, across the Manhattan skyline, will be keeping close tabs on the first two playoff events (Northern Trust and next week’s Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston) before they’ll finalize their 12-man teams. Each captain has two wild-card choices to make at the conclusion of the Dell, and current form will play a significant part in the decision. In the case of Mickelson, who missed the cut in his final two majors starts of this season, Stricker said on Monday at Liberty National that he needs to see him performing better. Mickelson hasn’t won since the 2013 Presidents Cup, but has played on each of the 11 U.S. Presidents Cup teams.

“He very much wants to be on the team,” Stricker said of Mickelson, who enters the FedEx Cup Playoffs seeded 51st, “and I want him to be part of this team. He’s a vital guy for our team room. But ultimately, you need to have him playing well.”

For players, it’s all about getting hot at the right time. Points awarded to winners of playoff tournaments are four times what they are in the regular season, a system that has propelled a few competitors who barely made it in – Heath Slocum (No. 124 in 2009), Morgan Hoffmann (No. 124 in 2014) and Kevin Streelman (No. 102 in 2010) – all the way to the Tour Championship.

“It’s definitely a good time to start firing,” said Henrik Stenson, a past FedEx Cup champion who greatly enhanced his own FedEx Cup chances by winning the Wyndham Championship on Sunday. He’ll start at No. 23 after teeing off at Wyndham seeded 75th. Things move fast.

The playoff fields are paired from 125 players (Northern Trust) to 100 (Dell) to 70 (BMW Championship) to 30 (Tour Championship). Of those players currently in the top 5, only Spieth (2015) previously has captured the FedEx Cup.

Two years from now, when the PGA Tour schedule is expected to be significantly revamped, the FedEx Cup Playoffs are expected to be trimmed to three events, and there’s even this bit of extra good news for players: In announcing an extension through 2027 with sponsor FedEx Corp. in January, first-year PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said a new schedule likely will include a bump in the overall bonus pool for players.

“There’s still some other moving parts that we need to get to before we’re able to announce any additional changes,” Monahan said. But, he added, “As we go forward, we expect the Cup and the payout to increase significantly.”

Gentlemen, start your Brinks trucks.

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