CARMEL, Ind. – Marc Leishman remembers the nervous feeling as he stood over a short putt on the final hole of the BMW Championship. It was his first time in the FedEx Cup, and the stakes were so enormous that he had a hard time blocking out everything but getting the ball in the cup.
The $10 million bonus? No, that was still a week away.
''I was thinking to myself, 'Hole this putt, and you're in the Masters.' I wasn't thinking about $10 million,'' Leishman said. ''To get into the Tour Championship ... look, the money is awesome, but everything that came with it was better.''
That's what makes the BMW Championship, which starts Thursday at Crooked Stick, the most important playoff event in the FedEx Cup.
Only the top 30 from the 70-man field advance to the Tour Championship, and they are exempt for the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. That might not be a big deal to Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy. But it means everything to players like Leishman, who had never played a major in his life until a tie for second at the 2009 BMW Championship got him into all four of them.
And it's a big deal to someone like William McGirt.
In his second year on the PGA Tour, McGirt secured his card with a runner-up finish in the Canadian Open, and he has improved 35 spots in the playoffs to make it to Crooked Stick. He played in his first major last month at Kiawah Island, an even greater thrill because it was in South Carolina, the state where he lives. McGirt is No. 39 in the FedEx Cup, closer than ever to his goal of getting to East Lake – and beyond.
''It would be nice to have $10 million,'' said McGirt, who has just over $1.7 million in career Tour earnings. ''But I've played in one major. My No. 1 goal is to get to Augusta at some point. I just want to play Augusta. I've been watching that tournament forever. And if I play well next week, we'll see what happens.''
His wife Sarah, expecting their first child in January, was asked if she would rather have $10 million or a trip to Atlanta. She sweetly smiled at the misleading question.
The $10 million will come into view soon enough.
Anyone who plays in the Tour Championship has a mathematical shot at $10 million because the points are reset. The higher a player is on the list, the better the odds. The top five are guaranteed the big bonus simply by winning at East Lake, although everyone in the field now has reason to believe it could be them. A year ago, Bill Haas was No. 25 when a curious chain of events - including Haas saving par with his ball half-submerged in a lake - led to him winning the FedEx Cup.
The idea is to get there. And the final gateway is Crooked Stick, a Pete Dye design north of Indianapolis.
Crooked Stick is best known for John Daly winning the 1991 PGA Championship as the ninth alternate, where he introduced his ''grip it and rip it'' approach to golf. The course also has hosted the U.S. Senior Open and the Solheim Cup, but this is the first time in two decades it has had the very best players in the world.
McIlroy, firmly established now as No. 1 in the world after his win last week at TPC Boston, is No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings. He's followed by Barclays winner Nick Watney, Woods, Ryder Cup pick Brandt Snedeker and Louis Oosthuizen.
Far more compelling in the 70-man field are the players trying to crack the top 30.
Jimmy Walker, for example, is at No. 46. He has never played in the Masters, the U.S. Open or the British Open. He missed qualifying for the U.S. Open by one shot this year. And he is four good rounds away from moving into the top 30 and getting into all three of those majors next year.
''From where I'm sitting right now, that's the carrot,'' Walker said. ''Getting there means getting in all the tournaments next year. It really helps, especially for guys in my position not playing in the big events. It will change your whole year.''
Of course, there's still the long odds of winning the $10 million, which comes with a five-year exemption on Tour.
Haas never imagined it would be him last year. All he really thought about was getting into East Lake. He had narrowly missed out in 2010 by finishing No. 31, and last year at the BMW Championship, he was perturbed at blowing a chance to qualify for the Presidents Cup when he shot a 42 on the back nine at Cog Hill. He was looking to make enough of an impression at East Lake to be a captain's pick when he saw a video board on the 17th hole in regulation.
''I look up and it says, 'Bill Haas is projected to win the FedEx Cup,''' he said. ''It's the first time I said, 'Oh, wow, maybe there's a little more on the line here.' That made me a little extra nervous.''
He made a bogey on the 18th, wound up in a playoff, saved par from the water two holes later and won on the third extra hole.
This year, Haas is in familiar territory. He won at Riviera in a playoff in February but has gone quiet since then and comes to Crooked Stick at No. 28. There is work left to reach the ultimate destination in the FedEx Cup, which is the Tour Championship.
And he is not the only one who thinks that way.
''This is the biggest one,'' said Pat Perez, who checks in at No. 55 and is somewhat of a long shot to get to East Lake. ''The biggest prize to me is top 30. The $10 million is nice, but it's only for one guy. I'd like to be in the top 30 because then I'm in everything. I'd have a chance to win majors. And that's what you need – a chance.
''If I could never win the FedEx Cup but knew I would be top 30 for the next 10 years? Sign me up.''