Woods vs. McIlroy is just one storyline as playoffs begin and Ryder Cup approaches

Woods vs. McIlroy is just one storyline as playoffs begin and Ryder Cup approaches

Rory McIlroy enters the Barclays ranked No. 1 in the world.

Two Cups are up for grabs beginning on Thursday — the FedEx Cup "playoffs" begin with the Barclays, and the race for the final Ryder Cup spots enters its last, desperate weeks. Along the way we also need to sort out who is player of the year. All of this intrigue will play out on a big-time golf course, Bethpage Black.

Zach Johnson, who joins Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in the marquee pairing of the Barclays' first two rounds, tried to put into words the grandeur of the setting and accidentally summed up the magnitude of the moment: "The whole place is just big. Everything about it is just big."

This is a particularly important week for the Ryder Cup wannabes because long, tree-lined, penal Bethpage feels a lot like this year's Ryder Cup venue, Medinah Country Club in Chicago. U.S. captain Davis Love will announce his four captain's picks on Sept. 4. They will likely be drawn from the talented quintet of Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson, but a Brandt Snedeker or a Bill Haas or a Bo Van Pelt could complicate matters considerably with a smashing performance at the Barclays. "I think there's four spots open," says Dustin Johnson. "I mean, I don't see how people have already made it. Obviously [Love has] guys in mind who he thinks he's going to pick, but that could change in the next couple weeks."

Bethpage is a good track for a bomber like Johnson. The Black tips the scales at 7,468 yards but plays longer with so many elevated greens. During practice rounds this week, players have gotten very little roll-out on drives. "The fairways are soft," says Johnson. "If the ball lands in the fairway, it's staying in the fairway. You know, that's good, especially for me. I like when the ball stays in the fairway."

Especially because they are framed by luscious rough. It's not quite as long as when Bethpage hosted the 2009 U.S. Open, but precision and not just power will be rewarded this week. Lucas Glover, an average-length hitter, won that Open, but it was the 2002 national championship, and Woods's smash-mouth victory, that cemented the Black's brawny reputation.

Tiger (who finished tied for sixth at the '09 Open) would trade a dozen FedEx Cups for one more major, but this year's playoffs offer him the chance to put a happy ending on what has been a vexing season. His Tour-best three victories have reestablished him as a premier player even as his weekend struggles at the major championships have revealed new vulnerabilities.

But if Woods can win the FedEx Cup for a third time — he's No. 1 on the points list — he would likely add the player of the year award to another trophy he has already clinched: comeback player of the year.

Expect him to be highly motivated playing alongside boy king McIlroy, who is teeing it up for the first time since his game-changing blowout victory at the PGA Championship. Though a mere 23, McIlroy already measures his legacy by the major championships. Still, he needs to continue filling out his resume a bit, and if he can overtake Woods and claim this FedEx Cup, there will be zero doubt that golf's balance of power has shifted. Possibly forever.

While the Tour's glamour boys will be the focus of the Big Apple sports pages, much of the FedEx Cup's drama comes at the bottom of the agate, as the lesser-lights fight for survival. One hundred and twenty three players will tee it up at the Barclays, but only 100 will move on to next week's Deutsche Bank Championship. (Jason Dufner is skipping Bethpage, and Spencer Levin withdrew due the death of his brother.) Players are earning points and dollars this week; after the FedEx Cup ends, the Fall Series begins, and the money will again be golf's main unit of measurement.

Heath Slocum, the 2009 Barclays champion, needed a big performance at last week's Wyndham Championship to sneak into the Barclays field. He's 124th in FedEx Cup points and 142nd on the money list. Only the top 125 on the money list at season's end will keep their Tour card. "Every single shot, every single dollar is important," says Slocum. "Absolutely. So what you're looking at now is the farther you go in the playoffs, and if you continue just to make money, obviously you're accumulating what other people don't."

With so much on the line this week, every player is sure to feel a few jitters on the first tee, which is famously framed by a sign that reads, "The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers."

Zach Johnson expects a pressure-packed week on an exacting venue. "You know what you're going to get when you come here," he says. "It's posted on the sign, right?"