EDISON, N.J. – In Jordan Spieth’s defense, he wasn’t a math major before bolting the University of Texas early to start collecting trophies.
“I could finish solo second and I think still win . . . no, that's not true,” he paused as his mind raced through the different FedEx Cup scenarios. “Top 5 wins . . .”
Put another way, after winning the year’s first two major championships and finishing tied for fourth – just one stroke out of a playoff – and second at the final two Grand Slam stops, Spieth enters the playoffs at this week’s Barclays with a commanding, some would even say insurmountable, lead.
But for the top-ranked player heading into the postseason, the reality is much more complicated than that.
Spieth could, in theory, win the next three playoff stops and somehow still not collect the season-long trophy and the $10 million FedEx Cup lottery ticket.
In fact, if history is any guide, the odds would not be in his favor.
Just twice in the FedEx Cup era has the player who entered the playoffs atop the FedEx Cup standings gone on to win the silver trophy and the small fortune that comes with it.
Regardless of a player’s lead heading into East Lake, the points are redistributed to narrow that lead enough so that anyone inside the top 5 heading into the finale can win the FedEx Cup with a victory at the Tour Championship.
“It's pretty much, did you win East Lake?” Spieth said on Tuesday at The Barclays. “For the most part, if you win East Lake, the guys that have won have been, I think Bill [Haas] came from way behind, but the guys have been up there because they played well leading into the Tour Championship.”
Spieth wasn’t a history major at Texas either, but he knows his FedEx Cup. The last five years the Tour Championship winner also won the season-long race.
For Spieth, it is an understandably harsh reality after what was otherwise an historic season.
It was a similar scenario for Rory McIlroy last year when the Northern Irishman began the post-season after winning the year’s final two majors and finishing in the top 10 at the final three playoff events, yet was third on the season-ending points list.
“It's very interesting because I understand why you make the playoff events worth more,” Spieth said. “Obviously in my position right now, where I stand, I wish that they were the same as a regular Tour event. In past years, two years ago, I was glad that they were worth more.”
The Tour’s tinkering of the playoff points structure was in response to what happened in 2008, when Vijay Singh, following victories at The Barclays and Deutsche Bank Championship, arrived at East Lake needing only to remain upright for four days to collect the cup.
The need for drama until the final putt prompted the point reset and it has largely had the desired impact. But it’s also created a system heavily weighted on one week’s performance and the hot hand.
“It's a little odd that it just completely resets, because if you want it to be the true champion of the year, it wouldn't necessarily reset for the final, even if you do make it worth more points throughout the playoffs,” said Spieth, who begins this week with a 1,710 point lead over No. 2 Jason Day.
Still, the evolving importance of the playoffs was evident on Tuesday at Plainfield Country Club when your scribe asked players who would get the nod for Player of the Year, which isn’t voted on until after the playoffs.
While Spieth was easily the consensus winner, many players opted to withhold final judgment until after the postseason.
“If someone goes four [wins] in a row, that would change. But it would have to be one of the top guys,” Paul Casey said. “Jason Day, if he won three out of four and won the [FedEx Cup] you’d have to think about it.”
After giving it a little more thought, Spieth figured the scenarios were rather straightforward. “If I win [East Lake], we've got a good shot at it,” he figured.