Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson are chasing unlikely FedEx Cup points leader Chris Kirk at Cherry Hills

September 4, 2014

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. — The FedEx Cup playoffs are all about sizzle, and money. The winner, to be determined after next week’s Tour Championship, takes home $10 million. The courtesy cars at this week’s BMW Championship at Cherry Hills feature not only an SUV and a sedan — the choice of most players — but also a select few i8s, the plug-in hybrid sports car with the swan-wing doors that goes 0-60 in 3.8 seconds and costs around $140,000. (Rory McIlroy is driving one.)

Should one of those pristine rides run into a bug on the short ride from the J.W. Marriott to the course, and even if it doesn’t, it will be washed by hand in the Cherry Hills parking lot. The tournament flew in U.S. national champions Timothy Wang and Lily Zhang to take on all comers at table tennis in the Cherry Hills locker room. (Freddie Jacobson, who played the sport competitively in his teens, put up the bravest fight but nonetheless lost to Wang and Zhang.) Even if they were only watching the Ping-Pong, players were offered one of the club’s signature chocolate shakes to slake their thirst. There are only 70 players left, and each would-be king of the FedEx may as well already be king of the world at Cherry Hills.

Sizzle. Sparkle. Sex appeal.

And then there’s Chris Kirk.

Halfway through the 2014 FedEx Cup playoffs, Kirk is in the lead by virtue of his victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship on Monday. On Wednesday, while players and caddies furiously charted shots and calculated yardages at altitude, Kirk was still introducing himself to the media and explaining his “nonchalant” (his word) outlook on life. His take on being left off the U.S. Ryder Cup team: “It’s going to take a lot more than this to put me in a bad mood.” His take on the (erroneous) report that he didn’t care that much about making the team: “That couldn’t have been further from the truth, and I definitely never said that.” The craziest thing he’s ever done: bungee jumping at around 11 years old with his brother and his father.

Oh, and shooting 64-66 to storm from behind and win the Deutsche Bank.

“I fist-pumped once in the final round,” Kirk said, “and once in the third round, so two in one week is a new personal record for me.”

Two fist pumps? Okay, it’s a start. That Kirk is in pole position qualifies as a surprise, but the FedEx Cup is the ultimate meritocracy. Win and you keep playing. Slip down the board with a couple of loose rounds and you’re going home. True, Tiger Woods has won it twice, but other winners include such non-household names as Bill Haas and Brandt Snedeker, plus career grinders like Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh and Henrik Stenson. The system simply does not play favorites.

As for bold-faced names, Phil Mickelson is one of the few who has not only played Cherry Hills, but won here — at the 1990 U.S. Amateur. One of only three players to advance to the Tour Championship in each of the last seven years, he sits at 56th in FedEx points and needs to finish fourth or better to crack the top 30 and punch his ticket to East Lake. His week at least got off to a solid start with the news that Ryder Cup partner and pal Keegan Bradley made this year’s team.

Bradley, who hasn’t won on Tour since 2012, is coming off a final-round 71 and 16th place finish at the Deutsche Bank. He hopes to do better at Cherry Hills, which he first set eyes on as he played nine holes Tuesday. “There could be some shots that you see guys hit that fly greens or come up way short,” said Bradley, who estimates that 95 percent of the 70-man field had never seen the high-altitude course before arriving from Boston earlier this week.

No. 1-ranked McIlroy, coming off a tie for fifth in Boston, spent much of his press conference trying to deflect talk of Europe as the prohibitive Ryder Cup favorite. He pointed out that the Euros have won only two of the last nine Ryder sessions, which sounded like a convincing argument until you remembered that they won those two sessions by landslides, allowing them to win both Cups.

As for Cherry Hills, McIlroy — second in the FedEx Cup race — said, “It’s funny, this course doesn’t really allow you to hit it that far. There’s not many opportunities where you can just hit driver and see how far it goes. I hit a 3-wood today 370.”

It’s good to be the king.

Cherry Hills is not a big course, and almost all of today’s players are capable of driving the par-4 first and third holes, some of them using only a 3-wood. (Arnold Palmer famously drove the first on the way to winning the 1960 U.S. Open.)

“Driver is a strength,” Hunter Mahan, third in FedEx Cup points, said of his strategy on one and three. “So I’m going to pull it as much as I can.”

“I’m really interested to see what the scores are going to be like,” said Kevin Stadler, who went to Kent Denver High not even a mile from the course, even if he’s played it fewer than 10 times. “I can really see low scores,” he added, “but then I can also see just kind of middling scores, because the rough is fairly penal.”

Colorado is green from all the rain that has fallen lately, all the better to grow the thick, nasty bluegrass rough at Cherry Hills. Accuracy will be at a premium. This could be an excellent week for a short, steady player like Tim Clark (51st in the FEC standings) to sneak a W. At 32nd, Stadler is on the bubble to advance to Atlanta. Bradley, who has made it to the Tour Championship every year since he was named Rookie of the Year in 2011, is 28th. “I don’t want to stop that streak,” he said.

This is a one-shot deal for Cherry Hills; after this year, the BMW, a Midwest staple, will return to Conway Farms in Chicago. That will leave Colorado without a tournament once again, as it had been since the final International at Castle Pines in 2006.

“This is Zach Johnson’s happy place,” said reigning BMW champion Johnson, an avid skier who holds the No. 11 in FEC points. “I love the state of Colorado. I love the town of Denver. I feel I’m playing somewhat of a Midwest golf course at 5,200 feet. So I love the way the course lays out. Essentially, I like what it demands.”

Other shorter, precision players sounded the same refrain.

“I guess my goals this week are very easily defined for me,” said Graeme McDowell, who fits that bill. G-Mac became a new father last week, to daughter Vale, and is 53rd in FEC points. “I’ve got to finish top five, and I’ve got to come out and be aggressive and play this golf course as hard as I can. I like the way it sets up.”

As McDowell points out, Cherry Hills itself is a bit of a math problem: the ball is said to fly three-to-five percent farther in the morning, but up to 10 percent farther in the afternoon at elevation. Then there’s the wind, and the elevated tees, like at the 346-yard, par-4 opening hole, where McIlroy hit a persimmon wood to within 49 yards of the green Tuesday. All told, a shot of 250 yards might end up playing more like 200. As McDowell put it, “There’s a lot of numbers flying around.”

No, math isn’t sexy, not normally. But this is the FedEx Cup, where math is as sexy as it gets. And besides, as Kirk showed in Boston, sizzle isn’t everything.

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