EDISON, N.J. – What once looked to be a long week at The Barclays suddenly has turned into a sprint.
Matt Kuchar heard the news from his walking scorer when he reached the eighth green Friday that the PGA Tour’s opening playoff event would be reduced to 54 holes on Saturday because of Hurricane Irene. By then, the defending champion had already left his mark on Plainfield Country Club and closed with a pair of pars for a 6-under 65.
That gave Kuchar a one-shot lead over Dustin Johnson and Vijay Singh, and it could loom large.
Even now, no one is sure what to expect from Irene. The plan is to start the third and final round Saturday morning and hope to finish before the storm arrives. If the rain shows up early and they can’t finish, it will revert to a 36-hole tournament.
“The best players generally come out winners after 72, so for me, I feel like the more golf we play, the better my chances,” Kuchar said. “But given the situation, I love being on top of the leaderboard with 18 holes to go. Hard to find something to complain about with the situation I’m in. Yeah, I’m quite happy that I’ve got this opportunity. I just feel like we’ve got one last round to go.”
Johnson missed birdie putts inside 10 feet on his last three holes and still shot 63. Singh, who has gone 67 starts on the PGA Tour since his last win at the BMW Championship in 2008, two-putted for par from 40 feet on his last hole for a 64.
“I’m pretty happy with my position,” Singh said. “I would have loved to be in the lead in case we don’t play.”
What helped is that only 72 players made the cut at 4-under 138, which at least makes for a quicker third round.
It’s the first time a FedEx Cup playoff event has been reduced to 54 holes since the series began in 2007, and there was not much choice.
Plainfield already had received about 10 inches of rain the past two weeks and 10 more were expected Sunday. There also were safety issues. Crews began dismantling electronic scoreboards Friday afternoon and an army of volunteers from the area had to make their own plans to evacuate, if necessary.
“It kind of makes you want to cry because of all the effort that went in, and all of the energy that surrounded this event going into the week, which is going to be the best Barclays we have ever had,” tournament director Peter Mele said.
The tournament had been a sellout, and fans still turned out Friday in warm weather. They were treated to quite a show.
Kuchar, who won The Barclays last year at Ridgewood, played without a bogey in a round so efficient that his most memorable shot was punching under a tree and onto the green for a two-putt par on the eighth.
He finished his first round earlier Friday with a birdie on the 18th for a 63, and he was at 14-under 128 going into the final round.
On the other side of the course was Johnson, using his sheer power to overwhelm a soft course. Johnson was blasting driver whenever he thought he could carry the trouble off the tee. He came up just short of the par-4 fourth and ninth greens, making birdie on both as he went out in 29. Johnson made an 18-foot birdie on the 11th to tie for the lead, but his 3-iron into the par-5 12th turned just enough to catch the water, and he had to scramble for par.
It was a spectacular round in many ways, no matter how soft the conditions, no matter how many chances he missed.
“There’s no way I can say I’m disappointed by any means,” he said. “I could have done a little better with the short game. But overall, I mean a 63 is a 63. I’m going to be smiling.” And, yes, he said that with a smile.
Singh had only one blemish when he three-putted from 30 feet on the 15th, but he countered with eight birdies. He recently went to Germany to get the same treatment on his back as Fred Couples, who won on the Champions Tour last week.
Jonathan Byrd birdied his last hole for a 66 and was at 11-under 131.
Among those at 10 under were Justin Rose (65), Aaron Baddeley (66) and a surprise – at least this year – in Padraig Harrington. The three-time major champion only got into the FedEx Cup playoffs last week at No. 124 of the 125 who qualified. He opened with a 65 for his low round of the year, and followed it with seven birdies in his round of 67.
He played with William McGirt, the No. 125 seed, who had a 69 and was another shot behind. They now only have one more round to secure a spot among the top 100 in the standings and move on to the second playoff event outside Boston next week.
“I wouldn’t say we played with desperation,” Harrington said. “I think there was a bit of freedom in it. We had nothing to lose. We were the last men in.”
McGirt was planning to play Nationwide Tour events in Tennessee and Idaho. Instead, he went to Plainfield and appears headed to the TPC Boston, two tournaments with $8 million in prize money.
“Kind of got everything going, but hey, it’s golf,” McGirt said. “And the worst thing I could finish this week is 125.”
PGA Tour events are not official unless they go at least 54 holes. If the rain arrives earlier than expected Saturday and the tournament reverts to 36-hole scores, the Tour will still distribute FedEx Cup points as if it were official, which is significant for those trying to get into the top 100.
Adam Scott won a playoff at Riviera six years ago after rain allowed just 36 holes, and while he received official money, it didn’t count as a PGA Tour win and he only received 75 percent of the world ranking points available that week.
None of the players seemed to mind that it would be 54 holes, even as a playoff event. One look at the forecast, and news of a hurricane warning for New Jersey, was enough to make anyone realize golf is secondary.
“I think they made the right decision,” Harrington said. “There’s bigger things going on, once this hurricane hits, to be worried about coming back for the last round of a golf event. There’s going to be bigger issues.”
The only beef for Ian Poulter was the timing of it all. He found out it was reduced to 54 holes when he saw the announcement on a video board with only four holes left in his second round. Poulter didn’t understand why the Tour couldn’t mention that as a possibility.
“It’s a little frustrating that you get told it’s a 54-hole tournament when you’ve got four holes to play,” he said. “The guys going out now for the second round know exactly what’s going on. There’s been no information about what might happen. And I think that’s pathetic.”
He at least finished with four pars for a 67 and was at 4 under, which made the cut and gives him a chance to get to Boston.
This is the second straight year a hurricane has been the focus at a playoff event. Hurricane Earl threatened the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston last season, although it never developed.
“I think you never know with hurricanes. They are fickle, as we all know,” Mele said. “Unfortunately, this one wasn’t.”