Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are conspicuously absent this week at the Tour Championship. This is the first time since 2006 that neither has been at East Lake, and the first time since 1992 that golf's two biggest stars didn't qualify for the Tour Championship. Mickelson had been a pro for only four months. Woods was still in high school.
Mickelson failed to win on the PGA Tour for the first time since 2003 and did not qualify for the top 30. Woods missed three months with back surgery and endured more back problems when he returned and didn't qualify for any playoff event.
But Rory McIlroy was not ready to call that a generational shift just yet.
He had two close encounters with Mickelson this year -- they shared second place in Abu Dhabi and McIlroy beat him by one shot at the PGA Championship.
''Phi has played well in parts this year,'' he said. ''I feel like he's gotten a little better as the year has went on. ... Tiger is not here just because he's been injured, or he is injured. He hasn't had the opportunity to play. But I think if he gets back, and when he gets back to full fitness, you'll see him back here again. They're just getting older. They're getting into the last few holes of their career. And that's what happens.''
McIlroy already has won a pair of majors this year -- the British Open and PGA Championship -- sandwiched around a World Golf Championship. He is back to No. 1 in the world and is assured of being there for at least the next two months. He already has wrapped up another PGA Tour money title.
About the only item McIlroy doesn't have is the FedEx Cup.
''After I finished the PGA, all my focus was on the FedEx Cup and trying to win this,'' McIlroy said Wednesday.
The trophy -- not to mention the $10 million bonus -- is up for grabs this week at East Lake. McIlroy didn't come close to winning the previous three FedEx Cup playoff events, though that never mattered. He is the No. 4 seed going into the Tour Championship, and the top five seeds only have to win the tournament to claim the FedEx Cup.
''Anything other than a win there would be a disappointment,'' he said.
McIlroy could win the FedEx Cup without winning the tournament, though recent history would not be on his side. Five of the seven FedEx Cup champions -- including the last four -- have all won the Tour Championship.
The good news for McIlroy? It might be the easiest tournament for him to win all year.
''I only have to beat 28 other guys,'' he said.
The 29-man field at East Lake is the smallest for the Tour Championship since the FedEx Cup began in 2007. Dustin Johnson is at No. 30, even though he has taken a ''voluntary leave'' to seek help for ''personal challenges'' and has not played since the Canadian Open six weeks ago. Golf.com reported that Johnson failed a drug test for cocaine prior to announcing his leave.
There are no alternates in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
What happens at East Lake could amount to a free-for-all.
The points have been reset to give everyone a mathematical chance, though the odds are increasingly longer for players further down the list. Only twice has a player beyond the top five seeds at the Tour Championship left town with a $10 million bonus -- Jim Furyk was No. 11 in 2010, and Bill Haas was No. 25 a year later.
The debate about this structure involves how much emphasis is placed on the final event. Two years ago, McIlroy won the PGA Championship, and then won back-to-back playoff events in Boston and Indianapolis. He tied for 24th in the Tour Championship and did not win the FedEx Cup.
Without resetting the points, someone could have the FedEx Cup wrapped up regardless of what happened at East Lake.
''It really just comes down to this week for the most part,'' Kirk said. ''I know that mostly likely I'm going to have to win this week to win the FedEx Cup. And so it's just like any other tournament, but we're playing for $11-and-a-half million instead of $1-and-a-half million. So it's all Monopoly money to me.''
No matter who wins the FedEx Cup, odds are the player would happily trade that for McIlroy's year -- two majors, a shoo-in to be PGA Tour player of the year, already the points-based winner of the PGA of America's award for player of the year.
''It's been a good season for me,'' McIlroy said. ''It's been consistent. I've had big wins. Like I said, I'd love to finish it off well with a win this week.''
UPDATE: McIlroy clarified his comments on Mickelson and Woods later Wednesday via Twitter:
Got a question today about Tiger and Phil... Gave an honest answer, was very complimentary about the 2 best golfers of this generation— Rory Mcilroy (@McIlroyRory) September 10, 2014
Golfers on average have a 20-25 year career, both into the back 9 of their careers... Don't think there's anything wrong with saying that.— Rory Mcilroy (@McIlroyRory) September 10, 2014