Until a month ago, the 2012 PGA Tour season had been a long year with a few nice stories but no real overriding theme. Now, though, with players getting ready for this week's 30-man Tour Championship at East Lake outside Atlanta and next week's Ryder Cup at Medinah outside Chicago, it's a sprint to the finish that will decide who goes home with $10 million, which side gets bragging rights for the next two years, and just how big Rory McIlroy-mania can get.
"I like the fact that they're back to back," said Jim Furyk, who won the 2010 FedEx Cup and comes into this week 18th on the points list, meaning he will need to win and get help from the top five players in the standings to win it again. "I think that I've always kind of played my best golf when I can play my way into shape."
If a player is ever going to peak, now's the time, and no man is hotter than McIlroy, who has won the PGA Championship, the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship in his last four starts. He leads the FedEx standings, which have been reset for this fourth playoff event. Like the four players behind him — Tiger Woods, Nick Watney, Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker — McIlroy controls his own destiny. He will win the Cup no matter what if he wins the Tour Championship at East Lake. That means the players are competing for $11.44 million — $10 million for the Cup plus $1.44 million for the tournament — which is a lot even for them. "If I win, I win; that's the mindset I'm coming in with," McIlroy said Wednesday. "I feel like I'm playing well enough to win, obviously. I've been playing well. I know if I do that, everything else takes care of itself."
(Related Photos: Previous FedEx Cup champions)
But you can pretty safely narrow this Tour Championship down even further, to just three of the aforementioned five: McIlroy, Woods and Mickelson. All three are playing well, and two of the three, Mickelson and Woods, have tamed East Lake. Mickelson won in 2000 and again in 2009, when Woods finished second and captured the $10 million for winning the FedEx Cup. Mickelson, whose game disappeared for much of the summer, has used a new claw putting grip to finish T4 at the Deutsche Bank and T2 at the BMW, and he could make up for a lost summer in the majors when he tees off with Watney at 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday. (All tee times.)
Woods didn't qualify for the Tour Championship when he was rebuilding in 2010 and '11, and he elected not to play in '06, but he won it in '07 and also finished second in '04 and '05. He, too, could use a big win to make up for lost weekends at the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA. As Furyk put it, the Tour Championship is "an opportunity to turn a good year into a great year." Woods and McIlroy, Thursday's final twosome, go off at 1:55.
"It really would top it off," Woods said Wednesday. "I've had a really good season, and to win the Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup, and then have my fourth win — all of those are positive things. These are the 30 of the hottest players this year, so you're beating a really good field. The guys are all playing well. I've done it twice, and hopefully I can do it again."
McIlroy not only hasn't won the Tour Championship, he's never played in it. As a non-PGA Tour member he wasn't eligible for the playoffs in 2011 and '09, and his FedEx run fizzled after the BMW in 2010. But based on his late-summer surge, there's little doubt the 23-year-old can win at the 7,154-yard, par-70 East Lake. He's 62 under par with three wins, a T5 and a T24 in his last five tournaments.
"It's hard to compare this to a major championship because it's a year-long thing, and it's about being consistent," McIlroy said. "It would be nice to have something to recognize that you have played the best golf the whole way throughout the year."
Others have already granted McIlroy that recognition, including Furyk, who said of McIlroy: "No matter how he plays here at the Tour Championship, he's right now the present day Tiger Woods, where everyone's eyes are on him."
Woods had eight victories at age 23, Jack Nicklaus five. McIlroy has six, and this week tries to close the gap with Woods in both tournament victories and FedEx Cups. Woods has won the FedEx Cup twice, Vijay Singh once, Furyk once, and Bill Haas once. Amazingly, no FedEx Cup champion has so much as made it back to the Tour Championship at East Lake the following year, although '07 champ Woods didn't play because he was injured for the latter half of 2008.
The 2011 edition of the Tour Championship was the least predictable, with a handful of players in contention to win the $10 million bonus until Haas saved par from the water and went on to beat Hunter Mahan on the third hole of their sudden-death playoff. At 25th on the FedEx points table to start the week, Haas was the biggest long shot winner of the Cup, followed by Furyk (11th in 2010), who says he has no idea what has to happen for him to take home the bonus this week.
It's just as well. With McIlroy, Mickelson and Woods fighting it out at East Lake, it may be a bad year for long shots, and a great year to be a fan.