First, let's get a few things out of the way.
The FedEx Cup playoffs, which begin Thursday at The Barclays, are not really "playoffs" in the traditional sense we have come to know through team sports. If so, far fewer players would qualify, and they would be rewarded less for their season's worth of work.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
When last we saw Tiger Woods, he was relinquishing his 54-hole lead at a major -- an unprecedented lapse -- to Y.E. Yang. This week, Woods is teeing it up at The Barclays with an eye toward claiming his second FedEx Cup in the Cup's three-year existence.
And although it is billed as a season-long triumph for the winner of the $10 million bonus, that is not necessarily true, either. The way the system is set up now, a player who positions himself just right at the end could walk away with the title despite having accomplished far less throughout the year than other competitors.
Actually, that does sound a lot like playoffs, doesn't it?
OK, so the FedEx Cup has its confusing flaws, starting with the corporate money grab that fuels the whole thing. A $10 million bonus -- with subsequent payouts down the line -- on top of four $7.5 million purses must make Jack Nicklaus wonder whether he was born too soon.
But the Golden Bear never faced fields like this on a weekly basis, especially at this time of year. The Barclays is missing just one player from the top 125 in the FedEx Cup standings and that one, Paul Casey, is not playing because of injury. Aside from Casey, only four players among the top 20 in the Official World Golf Ranking are missing, and that's because they are not PGA Tour members.
The truth is, we would have never seen a field like this assembled at this time of year were it not for the FedEx Cup playoffs or something similar.
Before the playoffs were born in 2007, you might as well have forgotten about golf after the PGA Championship. Most of the top players did, using September and October to rest, cherry-pick or simply recharge their competitive batteries for lucrative offseason appearances.
The incentive of making it to the 30-player guaranteed-money Tour Championship did not coax everyone off the couch.
Now, even Tiger Woods appears set to compete in the four-tournament stretch that continues next week for the top 100 at the Deutsche Bank Championship. After the DBC, the field gets pared down to the top 70 for the BMW Championship. After a week off, the playoffs conclude at the Tour Championship, where everyone in the 30-player tournament will have a mathematical chance at winning the FedEx Cup.
That last bit is where things are much different this year.
A year ago, after winning The Barclays and Deutsche Bank, all Vijay Singh had to do to win the Cup was keep from being disqualified. His biggest concern was injury from hauling away the $10 million. He never contended in Atlanta, yet was being presented the trophy while Camilo Villegas and Sergio Garcia were playing off for the Tour Championship title.
To avoid that scenario this time, the tour changed the formula. The points are not reset this week as they were a year ago. Instead, players carry forward their point total from the regular season. Now, however, point values are quintupled at the playoff events. So instead of getting 500 points for a victory, players will get 2,500.
If you're confused, don't feel bad. Many of the players remain unclear on how the whole thing works or on how it will unfold.
"Every year, the points have changed dramatically," said Justin Leonard, who is 39th in the FedEx Cup standings. "The first year, there was not enough movement. Last year, there was too much. So I think they're trying to find the balance. "
"It's hard really to comment on it until we get through the playoffs and see how it affects all the players. The fact that they're not resetting any points until the week of the Tour Championship will make a big impact. I know that the points are certainly more valuable in the playoffs. So it kind of remains to be seen how things will shake out. But hopefully we're getting closer to a permanent system because it changed dramatically all three years."
Woods, who has a 1,276-point lead over second-place Steve Stricker, could be passed by anyone in the top 30 this week if the other player wins the tournament and Woods finishes far enough down the list.
Once the top 30 make it to the Tour Championship, the points will then be reset, with the leader getting 2,500 points and the 30th player getting 210. No. 30 would need to win the Tour Championship and have a lot of other things happen, but he could claim the FedEx Cup.
Another stipulation already is causing some concern. Anyone in the top five heading to Atlanta who wins the Tour Championship is assured of winning the FedEx Cup. So if Woods wins this week and next but doesn't win in Atlanta, he still could be denied the top prize.
That, however, seems like a fair trade to create some much-needed drama in the last event.
And just like in those other playoffs, the regular-season champion does not always prevail at the end.
Leads after 54 holes in majors
There probably has been too much consternation over Tiger Woods' inability to win the PGA Championship after taking the lead into the final round. Woods had been a remarkable 14-for-14 in such situations in major championships before Y.E. Yang came from behind to defeat him at Hazeltine, although that conveniently forgets the fact that Woods won three of those majors in playoffs.
So although he had at least a share of the lead in all those tournaments, he didn't always win outright after 72 holes. And, lest anyone forget, at last year's U.S. Open, Woods had to rally -- twice -- to tie Rocco Mediate by birdieing the 18th hole, first in regulation, then in the 18-hole playoff.
Woods was bound to cough up a 54-hole lead, just as he is bound to come from behind to win a major championship, too.
Given that so much of Woods' career is tied to Jack Nicklaus, it is interesting to note that Nicklaus had at least a share of the 54-hole lead in a major championship 12 times and went on to win 10 of them. His two "failures"? The 1971 Masters and the 1977 British Open.
At the '71 Masters, Nicklaus shot a final-round 72 and was passed by Charles Coody, who won with a 70. And at the '77 British Open, the famous "Duel in the Sun," Nicklaus matched Tom Watson through three rounds, shooting 66 in the final round while Watson shot 65 to beat him by 1. (It's kind of tough to say Nicklaus "blew" that one.)
That means that in eight of Nicklaus' major victories, he came from behind after 54 holes, including all three British Open titles and, of course, the 1986 Masters -- his last -- when he shot 65 on the final day.
A look at this week's venue
Liberty National is being used for the first time and is the only new venue for a stroke-play tournament this year on the PGA Tour. The home of The Barclays -- the first of four FedEx Cup playoff events -- is moving around the greater New York City area and lands at this 7,400-yard course in Jersey City, N.J.
It remains to be seen how the course will hold up as a tournament venue, but it is difficult to imagine there being much to complain about when it comes to the view. Liberty National, which was designed by Tom Kite and Bob Cupp, has more than 4,000 feet of waterfront offering views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. The 18th green is less than 1,000 yards from the Statue of Liberty.
The course, which has water on three sides and was constructed on reclaimed land, is just a one-time venue -- so far -- for the tournament. Next year, it will return to Ridgewood Country Club, where Vijay Singh won last year, then head to Plainfield Country Club in 2011 before returning to its longtime home, Westchester Country Club, in 2012.
The tournament dates to 1967, when Jack Nicklaus won the Westchester Classic at Westchester Country Club. It was played at Westchester every year through 2007, when Steve Stricker won what was the first FedEx Cup playoff event.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
Birdies and bogeys
1. Michelle Wie. Her 3-0-1 performance was the best by any American player at the Solheim Cup, and her singles victory against Helen Alfredsson -- after blowing a 3-up lead -- was the kind of stuff we've been waiting for from Wie. Perhaps it also propels her to the greatness once expected.
2. Ryan Moore. He once won the U.S. Amateur, NCAA title, U.S. Public Links and Western Amateur -- in the same year! Moore also got his PGA Tour card without going to Q-school. But a pro victory had been elusive until his win Sunday at the Wyndham Championship.
3. European Solheim Cup team. So much for the notion that the Europeans were in need of help from the rest of the world. On paper, it was no contest, but the Europeans were tied with the Americans and in control of several singles matches Sunday before falling 16-12. Of the six matches that went to the 18th hole, five went the Americans' way, meaning that four-point loss could have been much closer.
1. Beth Daniel's strategy. Captains get too much blame and too much credit, but the LPGA Hall of Famer's hard and fast decision not to let any of her players go five matches nearly backfired. Morgan Pressel, Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie are certainly capable of the workload. But to stick with her game plan, Daniel broke up two winning teams that had won matches 5 and 4 and put hot players on the bench.
2. European whining. Why is it that whenever an American in team competition tries to get the crowd into the competition, somebody from across the pond has a problem with it -- when that is exactly what occurs on European soil? Christina Kim was the recipient of the negativity this time, just as Boo Weekley was last year at the Ryder Cup. As long as respect is shown to a competitor when getting ready to play, any sort of crowd pleasing in these team competitions is fair game -- and helps make the competition what it is.
3. Sergio Garcia. He had a victory within his grasp Sunday, then suddenly lost it -- again. Garcia didn't make a single birdie on the back nine and had a stretch of three bogeys that cost him a tournament he should have won.
Reading the fine print
It's a good news, bad news scenario for Michael Sim, the Australian who won the Nationwide Tour event in Kansas City on Sunday. And the news is mostly good. The victory was his third of the year on the Nationwide Tour, meaning an automatic promotion to the PGA Tour.
Known as the "Battlefield Promotion," the three-wins-and-you-move-up stipulation was implemented in 1997, and Sim, 24, is the ninth to take advantage.
But taking advantage can be problematic. Sim will not be eligible for any PGA Tour events until after the FedEx Cup playoffs are complete. And even then, he has "conditional" status, which means his priority for getting into events follows the top 125 on the previous year's money list plus all the Q-school and Nationwide Tour grads.
Given that the Fall Series events will be missing many of the top names, Sim should be fine, but it is interesting that the "Battlefield Promotion" is not the ticket to the big tour many assume it is.
Still, Sim will be fully exempt in 2010 on the PGA Tour, and he really has nothing to lose this year whether he wants to continue playing Nationwide events or take his chances on the PGA Tour.
• Several players improved their positions in the FedEx Cup standings by performing well in Greensboro, N.C. Ryan Moore, Jason Bohn, Fred Couples, Kevin Stadler, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose all gave themselves excellent chances of advancing to the Deutsche Bank Championship, where the top 100 will gather next week. Michael Allen is just outside at 101.
• Chris Riley, Todd Hamilton and Jeff Maggert were all outside the top 125 before playing their way into this week's Barclays field. Matt Jones and Rich Beem were among those bumped out, as was Tom Watson, who indicated he would not compete in the playoffs anyway.
• Ricky Barnes and David Duval were unable to build on the success they showed at the U.S. Open, where they tied for second. Barnes has played six times since, with his best a tie for 59th the next week at the Travelers Championship. He missed his last four cuts and finished 142nd in the FedEx Cup standings. Duval missed three of four cuts, his best a tie for 63rd at the U.S. Open. He ended up 149th in the FedEx Cup standings.
• Tiger Woods returns to The Barclays for the first time since 2003. It is one of only three PGA Tour events in which he has played at least three times and not won. The others are the Northern Trust Open (11 starts) and FBR Open (three starts). He has played The Barclays four times.
• Although Phil Mickelson has yet to commit to any PGA Tour events beyond this week's Barclays, his name did appear on the list of those scheduled to play the HSBC Champions event, a November tournament in China that now has a World Golf Championship designation.
• Paul Casey is skipping the Barclays because of the rib injury that kept him out of the PGA Championship. There is no alternate list for The Barclays, so the field will be 124.
"I would bet a large amount of money that she is going to win before this year is out."
-- LPGA Hall of Famer Juli Inkster on Michelle Wie after the Solheim Cup.
Catching up with last year's champ
Vijay Singh captured the FedEx Cup in 2008 and won The Barclays along the way, defeating Sergio Garcia and Kevin Sutherland in a sudden-death playoff. He also won the Deutsche Bank Championship the next week, all but securing the FedEx title. This will be the fourth time he has returned to The Barclays as defending champion, having won the tournament in 1993, 1995, 2006 and 2008. In addition to those four victories, Singh also had four other top-10s.
But he comes into the 2009 tournament looking for his first victory of the year. Singh was slowed by knee surgery in January and later admitted he returned to the PGA Tour too soon. He got into contention at the PGA Championship, only to be doomed by poor putting in the third round. He tied for 16th.
Singh has won at least once in 12 PGA Tour seasons and has at least one win in each of the past seven seasons (2002-08). Of Singh's 34 PGA Tour titles, 22 have come since he turned 40 in February 2003. He enters the FedEx Cup playoffs in 56th place.
The Barclays picks
Birdie Buster. Y.E. Yang. The South Korean enters his first playoff event on a roll, having shot 67-70 on the weekend at Hazeltine to win the PGA Championship over Tiger Woods.
Horse for the Course. Vijay Singh. Liberty National is new to Singh, as it is to all in the field. But Singh has won the tournament four times.
Super Sleeper. Troy Matteson. The last player in the field at 125th in the FedEx Cup standings, Matteson has not had a top-10 finish all season, with his best result a tie for 14th at the Buick Open. To have any chance of moving on to the Deutsche Bank, Matteson would need no worse than a 53rd-place finish and probably more like a top-40.
Winner. Steve Stricker. The two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year also won this event in 2007, giving Tiger Woods a brief scare in the FedEx Cup race.