Five things I’m looking for from the Barclays at Liberty National as the four-week FedEx Cup playoffs get underway:
1. The FedEx Cup playoffs always feature at least one guy who comes out of nowhere to hoist a tournament trophy, and this is the perfect week for just such a winner, a player in the mold of Heath Slocum, who won the Barclays the last time it stopped at Liberty National, in 2009. (Slocum won’t defend; he’s playing on the Web.com tour in 2013.) Yes, Tiger Woods had a putt to force extra holes at the ’09 Barclays, but this doesn’t look like a week for him to atone for that near-miss, what with his neck and back giving him trouble. Also, Liberty National is still relatively unfamiliar to Woods and his ilk -- Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker will be his Thursday-Friday playing partners -- so opportunity knocks for the 20 FedEx Cup first-timers in the field. Watch out for Jordan Spieth, who is coming off a runner-up finish at the Wyndham and whose upward trajectory cannot be overstated.
2. Rory McIlroy, who still hasn’t hoisted any sparkly hardware in 2013 -- unless you count the baubles he’s moved from his home in Northern Ireland into his trophy room in his new Jupiter, Fla., manse -- will continue to play better. But I doubt he’ll suddenly play well enough to win, and that will inspire the usual mixed bag of reactions. His T8 at the PGA was a step in the right direction, but according to the experts it left McIlroy “disappointed” (Irish Central) and with “confidence boosted” (The Guardian). Last year’s FedEx Cup ended with people scratching their heads at how McIlroy could have won the Deutsche Bank and the BMW without taking home the $10 million bonus. This year’s FedEx Cup begins with another Rory question: Can he really go an entire year without a W?
3. I hope I’m wrong but I’m not expecting much from Phil Mickelson. That’s hard to say for many reasons, first because I like to watch the guy play well, but also because it wasn’t that long ago I was predicting he’d finally reach No. 1 by the end of the Tour Championship. Then he failed to contend at the WGC-Bridgestone (as expected), and hit it all over the place at the PGA at Oak Hill (not expected). He also pulled out of the Grand Slam, opening the door for Padraig Harrington to take his place -- not a huge surprise. It’s an open secret that the golf season is simply too long, and in some cases it has outlasted Mickelson’s attention span and/or stamina, perhaps owing to his psoriatic arthritis. Just a month after his epic victory at the British Open at Muirfield, Liberty National member Mickelson may be in a fight to regain his swing in time for the Presidents Cup, Oct. 3-6.
4. You’ll be hearing a lot about PGA Tour math, since this week’s top 125 will be cut to 100 (Deutsche Bank), which will become 70 (BMW) and finally 30, for the Tour Championship, Sept. 19-22. Each of the first three tournaments offers five times the FedEx Cup points. What you won’t hear about so much is that Web.com Tour math is likely to be far more interesting, at least this year. For the first time, players on the developmental tour have potentially 50 spots waiting for them on the PGA Tour in 2014. The top 25 after this week’s Web.com Cox Classic get promoted immediately, while the top 75 on the money list move on to the four-tournament Web.com Tour Finals, which will also include Nos. 126-200 in FedEx Cup points on the PGA Tour in 2013. The top 25 from those four tournaments, the so-called Finals, also will earn exempt status on the PGA Tour in 2014.
5. Liberty National and its founder, Paul Fireman, and designers, Bob Cupp and Tom Kite, will get better feedback than they did in ’09, but they’ll make still more changes to the quirky course on the shores of New York Harbor after the best players in the world have another look at it this week. You don’t redo 12 tee boxes and 12 greens, and reshape parts of 13 fairways -- as they’ve done since the place was so poorly received in ’09 -- without failing to correct a few mistakes or even creating a few new ones. But such growing pains are hardly atypical of a new course and shouldn’t be mistaken for an indictment of this former toxic waste dump, where the views of the Manhattan skyline will always be sublime. You’ll see so many cutaway shots of Lady Liberty this weekend you might think she’s somehow moved into the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings.