EDISON, N.J. (AP) — The numbers alone fail to explain why Steve Stricker plays some of his best golf this time of the year.
He is the only player to complete all 64 rounds of the FedEx Cup playoff events since they started in 2007. Along with two wins, only twice has he finished out of the 20 in those 16 tournaments. He has topped $5.7 million in prize money.
So why does he play so well? Why do some of his peers call him “Mr. September?”
Because he can see the finish line.
“The only thing I can think of is that the end of the season is about four tournaments away, and I really get excited for the end of the year, spending more time at home,” Stricker said. “Hunting season is a month away, and I get to do a lot of that.”
Stricker is the No. 2 seed and among the favorites to capture the $10 million for winning the FedEx Cup. He finished second to Tiger Woods in 2007, and he was third behind Woods and Phil Mickelson two years ago.
It starts Thursday at The Barclays, the opening event of four tournaments with $8 million in prize money. It ends the last week of September at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, and just about anything can happen.
Nick Watney, who comes into this year’s postseason No. 1 in point standings, barely made it to the FedEx Cup finale last year at East Lake for the top 30 players. He was No. 28, and had a chance in the final hour of the last round in Atlanta to win the cup.
The top five seeds this year are Watney, Stricker, Webb Simpson, world No. 1 Luke Donald and PGA champion Keegan Bradley. Whether they stay there over the next three tournaments – or event this week – is up in the air. The points are worth five times as much as the regular season, so this is the time for players to get their games in order.
“These four tournaments, they mean more,” Stricker said. “If you can’t get fired up and excited to play these four, then you have issues, I imagine. It’s a good time. I enjoy this time of year.”
There are a few changes to these playoffs.
It starts with the field. Not only did Woods fail to qualify for the playoffs for the first time, some of the names accustomed to being around the top are actually closer to the bottom.
Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion, barely finished among the top 125 to get into the playoffs. He is at No. 124, and will need to finish among the top 30 at The Barclays just to join the 100 players who advance to the second round in Chicago.
“I’m of the opinion that I’m in a great position going into this, that I’m just like every other guy,” Harrington said. “In order to win the FedEx Cup, you’re going to have to win one of the first three events, and the last event. I’ve got nearly the same chance as anybody else of winning this outright. I just need to perform a little bit quicker than other guys.”
The biggest turnaround belongs to Ernie Els.
A year ago, he was the No. 1 seed. Now he’s at No. 118, and he had to play in North Carolina last week just to qualify. The odds of Els making it to the Tour Championship – he joins Stricker, defending FedEx Cup champion Jim Furyk, Mickelson and Hunter Mahan as the only players to reach the final playoff event all four years – are far greater than last year.
But at least he has a chance.
“It’s a little different,” Els said Wednesday. “But I think this is almost a better mentality. I feel I need to be aggressive and get up the bloody points list. Otherwise, I’m going home. Last year I was the No. 1 seed, but I wasn’t quite playing as good as I was in March. This year, I feel like I have to make a move. And I feel a little more comfortable with that.
“I had three good rounds last week, and I feel my game is coming along,” he said. “It’s a good feeling going in.”
The other big change is the golf course.
So far, The Barclays is the only playoff event that moves around, although it stays in the New York area in New Jersey. Plainfield Country Club is the fourth venue for this tournament, and no one in the field has ever played a tournament here.
“I love the course,” Els said. “It’s a bit funky, and I’m sure not everyone will like it.”
Els knows that better than most. He did the redesign at Wentworth for the European Tour’s flagship event, and understands there will be complaints from some players.
Hardly anyone has complained about the 18th hole at Plainfield. Tour officials have converted it from an ordinary par 4 of about 400 yards up the hill to a 285-yard closing hole in which most players will have a chance to drive the green.
There are bunkers guarding the green. There is tall fescue on both sides, punishing the wild shots. But there is opportunity to make birdie, if not eagle, on the final hole of the tournament.
“I think it’s terrific,” Mickelson said. “If I ask anybody to think of your favorite golf course, and on that golf course, to think of your favorite hole, it’s either a par 3 under 150 yards or a drivable par 4, occasionally a reachable par 5. That 18th hole is going to be one of the favorite holes for the guys.
“It gives us a chance to get aggressive, conceivably make an eagle, most likely make a birdie, and if you hit a bad shot, make a 5. I think that that makes it exciting for the finish.”