LAKE FOREST, Ill. – There’s a trophy at stake at the BMW Championship, a nice piece of silver that will look great in pictures and, in all likelihood, will belong to Marc Leishman by Sunday night.
But whether or not the Aussie converts his five-shot lead, another tournament will play out in a different section of the high-definition leaderboards lining Conway Farms Golf Club.
Each stop along the FedExCup Playoffs brings with it a bubble watch, but nowhere is the cut more dramatic than here. Players talk all season long about hoping to make it to the season-ending Tour Championship and giving themselves a shot at a $10 million bounty.
In the case of Phil Mickelson, it could provide a satisfying conclusion to a tumultuous year.
Mickelson hasn’t made it to East Lake since 2013, and earlier this season it appeared he would end that drought with ease. The southpaw continued his winless run but amassed a string of high finishes, stockpiling points along the way.
But then he switched caddies, and missed the cut in the season’s final two majors. Suddenly Mickelson entered this week’s event outside the bubble at No. 34, still with work to do.
Saturday’s round served as a bit of a microcosm for Mickelson, as he raced out with three birdies over his first six holes to move comfortably inside the top-30 projections. He then played his next 12 holes in 2 over and watched his name drift back to the wrong side of the bubble.
“It was a little disappointing,” Mickelson said. “I’ve got a good round in me. [I'm] playing too well not to go out and shoot a number and get in the top 10 to make it to next week.”
Mickelson will start the final round in a tie for 15th, 32 projected points behind Gary Woodland, who clings to the 30th and final spot. He will be one of several players whose postseason fates will be determined by the permutations of the final-round leaderboard.
Some will stay glued to the standings with each projected change – but not Mickelson.
“I just kind of set a number,” he said. “I know I’ve got to shoot probably 4, 5 under par. Like I said, I’m playing well enough to do that with ease. I let a lot of shots slide today.”
The final-round stakes extend far beyond a bigger piece of the prize pool in Atlanta. Make it to East Lake and you’re in the first three majors of 2018, not to mention the WGC-Mexico Championship.
It’s an enticing prospect for rookie Mackenzie Hughes, who has worked his way from 31st to 24th in the projected standings through three rounds, as well as Patrick Cantlay, who started the year on a major medical extension but will still tee off Sunday inside the top 30.
But young and old, the benefits of making the season’s final event are unmistakable.
“If you’re in the top 30, your schedule is just different,” said Stewart Cink. “You’re just in all the tournaments you want to be in, and you can look ahead to things.”
Cink knows full well the spoils of making the Tour Championship. He was there each of the first three years of the FedExCup, and the former Georgia Tech standout relished an opportunity to play in front of partisan crowds. But he hasn’t been back since 2009.
Now 44 years old and eight years removed from his last win, Cink bogeyed the final two holes of his third round to drop from inside the projected top 30 to No. 44. So there’s work to be done, but he’s not shying away from the stakes.
“There’s no point in trying to hide from it, because there’s no way you’re not going to see it or hear it, or something’s going to alert you to it. And then what are you going to do?” Cink said. “You can’t un-know it or un-hear it. So I don’t think it’s appropriate to try to ignore it. You have to embrace it.”
It’s an interesting dynamic here in the season’s penultimate event. The top 20 or so players have already booked hotels for Atlanta, while most of those who started the week outside the top 50 know full well that they are heading into their final competitive round until next season.
But for the handful of players in the middle, those with realistic aspirations of either staying inside the top 30 or crashing the party at the last minute, there’s everything still to play for and only 18 holes left to make a move.
“Where I am, and the season so far and my career, and my age and all that stuff, I’ve got nothing to lose except to go out there and try to go all out tomorrow,” Cink said. “One good round might just be enough to get me in the Tour Championship.”