LAKE FOREST, Ill. – It’s all about the top five.
Players have been saying it for months: As long as they’re inside the top five in the FedEx Cup standings entering the Tour Championship, they can – all together now – control their own destiny and have a clear shot at the $10 million bonus.
So what’s the incentive for some of the PGA Tour’s biggest stars this week?
Jason Day and Jordan Spieth are already assured of being in the top five next week at East Lake, no matter what happens here at Conway Farms. The third member of that featured group, Rickie Fowler, is virtually guaranteed to stay there too, barring an upside-down week at the BMW.
There is still plenty to play for, of course. The 70-man BMW still counts as an official PGA Tour victory. It still features a full purse, with $1.48 million to the winner. And it still offers plenty of world ranking points, which is good news for Day and Spieth, who are vying for Rory McIlroy’s top spot. But there is no denying that their work weeks don’t quite have that win-or-go-home intensity.
“As far as the final tally of the FedEx Cup, it’s not going to make much of a difference if I win this week or finish 70th because it’ll be re-paired and I’ll be in the top five; you control your own destiny,” Spieth said. “When you think about the FedEx Cup picture, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.”
Or does it?
We know this much: If any of the top five players in the standings win next week at the Tour Championship, then they take home the FedEx Cup and the biggest cash prize in golf.
We know this, too: With the points reset before the final event – the top seed starts at 2,000 points, second place at 1,800 and third at 1,600, etc. – the top players can still win the FedEx Cup even without a win at East Lake … though it’s worth noting that the winner of the Tour Championship has gone on to take the FedEx Cup every year since the system was revamped in 2010. At the end of the day, it still comes down to how a player performs at crunch time.
Nine years into the FedEx Cup era, and players still don’t fully grasp all of the probabilities and permutations. It’s complicated math, but it’s a mistake to assume that there is no difference between who is first and fifth heading into East Lake.
In fact, from a probability standpoint, the No. 1 overall seed has a nearly 29 percent chance to win the FedEx Cup, opposed to just 11 and 8 percent, respectively, for Nos. 2 and 3.
Or how about this: The No. 1 player in the standings can still win the FedEx Cup if he finishes 29th in the 30-man field at the Tour Championship. The No. 2 guy needs to be among the top six to have a chance to win the Cup. The odds for the No. 5 man are even worse – he must finish no worse than second.
Your head spinning yet?
“The higher, the better,” Fowler said of his mindset.
So the BMW, then, actually features three intriguing storylines: the race to get inside the top 30, which gives everybody a shot at the big prize; the race for the top five, which guarantees a FedEx Cup title with a win next week; and then the race for position inside the top five, which isn’t sexy, not at all, but it is important, for each slot offers better odds.
Said 2014 FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel: “It’s an event that we all need to play well in, whether you’re already in East Lake or trying to get there.”
No-cut events always have a laid-back vibe – especially this time of year – but there’s plenty at stake this week.
Leading the race is Day, who is playing the best golf of his career and has another chance to realize a lifelong goal of reaching world No. 1. It would require a furious finish – and probably two consecutive wins – but there’s still a chance that he could steal some Player of the Year votes if he were to win the FedEx Cup.
“I know that I just have to suck it up for the next two weeks and go out and play as hard as I can,” he said. “I’ve got no excuses. I need to go out and play good. That’s the only thing that I have to focus on right now.”
After missing consecutive cuts in these playoffs, Spieth is relieved that he will at least accrue some points this week. He says he isn’t dealing with a major hangover and simply had four bad rounds. He’ll approach the Tour Championship as if it were a major, and these next two events present an opportunity to end his historic season with the exclamation point that it deserves.
Because of the points reset, and because he’s already assured of one of the five prized spots, Spieth says that it’s a “free-rolling scenario” and that he will play more aggressively to get his game in gear for East Lake.
“It makes you feel like you may as well go for broke here,” he said, “and play some shots under pressure that are more dangerous so that you can almost have it ready for next week.”
Those two are safe. Everyone else is trying to peak at the right time to cash in.
Every player currently inside the top 29 could move into the top five with a win this week – a group that includes Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy.
And players who survive the 70-to-30 cut are exempt into all four majors next year, which is a big deal for guys like Daniel Summerhays (No. 26), Jason Bohn (28) and rookie Justin Thomas (35), who have combined for 11 Grand Slam appearances since 2010.
Hey, if we’ve learned anything over these past nine years, it’s this: At the big-money free-for-all, every spot matters.