GREENSBORO, N.C. – We’ve finally made it.
With all due respect to Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour now has the longest regular season in sports. After all, when the season began 307 days ago, Tiger Woods’ position atop the game was unquestioned.
Instead, we wondered things like: Will Rory McIlroy ever figure out how to win with those pesky Nike clubs? Will Rickie Fowler ever add substance to his style? How many majors will Tiger win (not play) in 2014?
Oh, what a difference 10 months can make.
Forty-one events have come and gone during the split-year season, with 34 different players hoisting trophies from Jimmy Walker’s lid-lifter at the Frys.com Open in October to Camilo Villegas’ victory Sunday at the Wyndham Championship.
With all of that now in the rearview mirror, the fun begins.
The Barclays kicks off a four-week binge of postseason golf, one that will see 123 qualifiers (Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner, both notably absent) pared down to 30 finalists at the Tour Championship and, ultimately, one FedEx Cup champion. While last season featured a mid-playoff bye week to alleviate the stress – while also halting some of the momentum – the action this time around will blend from one week to the next as the Tour visits New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado and Georgia in the span of 25 days.
When things begin this week, all eyes will be on Rory McIlroy as he looks to win his fourth high-profile event in a row. After two majors and a WGC victory, he has cemented his spot atop the world rankings, but the Ulsterman was in a similar position after his PGA Championship victory in 2012. He even won two postseason events that year, the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship, but failed to leave East Lake with the FedEx Cup, which instead went to a hard-charging Brandt Snedeker.
Perhaps he’s motivated to avenge that loss, or perhaps he’s still counting his money from Valhalla and trading Twitter barbs with Ian Poulter. Time will tell.
While McIlroy has won everything in sight over the past month, several of the postseason favorites have yet to lift a trophy recently. At No. 5 in points, Jim Furyk is the highest-ranked player without a victory this season, but he’s not alone: Sergio Garcia and Jordan Spieth are just behind at Nos. 7 and 8, respectively, while Fowler’s quartet of top-five finishes in the majors means he will start the playoffs at No. 16 in points.
Only one player will win the $10 million annuity that comes with claiming the FedEx Cup, but there are still plenty of other meaningful incentives up for grabs. Each of the 30 players who make the Tour Championship field will be exempt into all four majors in 2015, which would be a massive bonus for someone like Charles Howell III, a native of Augusta, Ga., who seems to miss out on a trip to the Masters each year.
Howell will begin the playoffs at No. 33, while George McNeill will start at No. 41. McNeill, who came tantalizingly close to an emotional victory at The Greenbrier Classic, has won twice on the PGA Tour but has never made the trip down Magnolia Lane as a player.
And if subplots are more your thing, get ready for two weeks of WWWD: What Will Watson Do? No, not a game focused on Bubba’s mercurial relationship with caddie Ted Scott, but instead an attempt to predict what Captain Tom will do with his three U.S. Ryder Cup selections on Sept. 2.
Keegan Bradley remains a consensus pick, and will begin his two-week audition at Ridgewood. Two other notables already have a solid week of tryouts under their belts, though, as Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker matched each other shot-for-shot over the weekend in Greensboro and tied for fifth.
Neither was the low American name on the final leaderboard at Sedgefield. That was Bill Haas, who tied for second and is getting some traction as a possible selection. Outside of a withdrawal from the RBC Heritage, he hasn’t missed a cut all year.
The regular season is officially in the books, and the race is on to succeed Henrik Stenson as golf’s postseason champion. Four weeks, four elite fields, four world-class venues … Rory can’t win them all.