Tiger, Rickie, Rory and Jordan all enter FedEx Cup with questions

Bob HarigESPN Senior Writer6 Minute Read
Tiger Woods is back at the FedEx Cup. And he is committed to playing all the steps along the way.Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

The FedEx Cup playoffs begin this week with the first of four tournaments that will crown a season-long PGA Tour champion. Do not confuse that with the player who won the most tournaments, majors or money. Or who is ultimately voted PGA Tour player of the year.

The playoff system, which began in 2007 and pays out a $10 million bonus to the winner, has been tweaked a few times in its 12-year history with the idea of trying to balance a system that rewards those who have had a strong year with those who get hot during the final four events.

Here is a look at what is ahead:

The tournaments

The playoffs begin this week with the Northern Trust at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey, followed by the Dell Technologies Championship at the TPC Boston and then the BMW Championship at Aronimink Golf Club outside of Philadelphia.

The top 125 in the FedEx Cup standings through Sunday's Wyndham Championship make the Northern Trust field. From there, it is whittled down to the top 100 at the Dell and the top 70 at the BMW. After the BMW, there is an off week prior to the Tour Championship, which is reserved for the top 30. Mathematically, any player who qualifies for the Tour Championship has a chance to win the FedEx Cup.

The points

Starting this week, points are quadrupled from regular-season events, a system that went into effect in 2015. So the winner will receive 2,000 points instead of the 500 paid out at regular events. Second place gets 1,200 points instead of 300. The idea is to create some volatility and movement. So a victory in a FedEx Cup playoff event is weighted more heavily than winning a major championship (600 points) or a World Golf Championship event (550). In fact, the winner this week will get more points (2,000) than Brooks Koepka got for winning both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship combined (1,200). After the BMW Championship, the top 30 advance to East Lake in Atlanta, where the points are reset, allowing everyone in the field a chance to win the FedEx Cup.

Sitting out

Rickie Fowler has an oblique injury and Rory McIlroy simply needs some time to sort through the various issues in his game that left him frustrated following a 50th-place finish at the PGA Championship.

At 17th in the points, Fowler will easily qualify for the next two playoff events. So will McIlroy, who is 21st. Henrik Stenson and Bud Cauley also withdrew. The only other player eligible and not entered is Patrick Rodgers at No. 93. He might have to sweat out getting passed, but it is unlikely there will be eight players to displace him. He is getting married and skipping the tournament.

What about Tiger?

For the first time in five years, Woods has qualified for the playoffs. He has not played a single playoff event since finishing tied for 22nd at the 2013 Tour Championship and ended up second in the FedEx Cup standings to Henrik Stenson. That year, he entered the playoffs ranked No. 1 in the standings after winning five times and finished tied for second at the first playoff event, which was then called The Barclays.

That was the tournament where Woods fell to the ground on the back nine of the final round, in pain with back trouble. It was the first sign that something was amiss but hardly an indication of what was to come over the ensuing five years.

Now he's back in the playoffs and 20th in the FedEx Cup standings. It came as somewhat of a surprise that Woods committed to the first three playoff events, especially after giving himself some breathing room with his second-place finish at the PGA Championship. Woods could have skipped this week or next week and still qualified for the Tour Championship, which takes the top 30. Given that he typically does not withdraw from events unless there are extenuating circumstances, Woods appears set to play three straight weeks for the first time she he played the WGC-Match Play, Honda Classic and WGC-Cadillac Championship in 2013.

It will be interesting to see how much effort Woods puts into the playoffs. If he plays all four events, that will be 18 tournaments -- the most he has played since competing 20 times worldwide in 2012. That is the only time going back to 2005 that Woods played more than 18 times. And since he is a virtual lock to play on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, he faces the possibility of five tournaments (there is an off week prior to the Tour Championship) in the next six weeks.

At stake for Tiger

Mostly pride -- and more chances to win a tournament. It is hard to believe that Woods is concerned about winning the overall FedEx Cup, but playing these tournaments gives him more chances to win. And if he makes it to the Tour Championship, that means he is exempt for next year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (he would have received a special exemption had he not qualified), as well as the WGC-Mexico Championship. And if he's interested in going to China in November, it would make him eligible for the WGC-HSBC Champions -- as would being in the top 50 in the world. He is presently 26th.

Where is Jordan?

Since playing his first full year as a pro in 2013, Jordan Spieth has made the Tour Championship every year, won the FedEx Cup in 2015 and finished outside the top 10 in the final standings just once. This year, Spieth has work to do after a lackluster season -- by his standards -- that has seen him fail to win.

Spieth is 43rd in the FedEx standings, far from a lock to make it to the final tournament at East Lake.

But to give you an idea of how crazy, and controversial, the playoffs can be, Spieth in 2015 missed the cut at each of the first two playoff events after having entered No. 1 in points. He then finished tied for 13th at the BMW Championship and won the Tour Championship -- and the FedEx Cup.

Among the factors holding Spieth back this year? He is 144th in strokes gained, putting. Two years ago, he was second in that category.

Bye-bye Boston (in odd-numbered years)

Next week's Dell Technologies event at TPC Boston will be the final one in a four-tournament playoff series. Next year, the playoff format has just three events, with Boston and New York area venues alternating as the site for the first playoff event. With that is expected to come some sort of alteration to the playoff format as well as an increase in the bonus pool including the $10 million that goes to the winner. Next year, the Northern Trust will be played at Liberty National outside of New York. In 2020, it heads back to TPC Boston.

Ryder Cup

Those who did not make the U.S. team automatically last week still have an opportunity to make an impression on captain Jim Furyk. He will make three at-large selections in two weeks following the Dell Technologies, and then a final pick a week later. If you believe that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are set as two of the picks, then only two remain. Bryson DeChambeau, who finished ninth in the points, Matt Kuchar, Kevin Kisner, Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele and Zach Johnson often an interesting mix of youth and experience. Brandt Snedeker just won at the Wyndham. If he gets hot in the playoffs, does he warrant a pick?

On the European side, the points race ends in two weeks, following the European Tour event in Denmark. Thorborn Olesen moved into an automatic qualifying spot after his fourth-place finish in Sweden, a huge help to captain Thomas Bjorn -- who has made it clear he prefers not to use a pick on his fellow Dane so as to not show favoritism.

Ian Poulter is now on the bubble, but it is hard to imagine the Englishman not getting a pick. And he has a goal of making it to the Tour Championship for the first time, so he has plenty of opportunities to shine. Will Sergio Garcia get a pick? The longtime Ryder Cup star failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Moving in and out

Only two players moved into the top 125 last week. Nick Taylor jumped from 129 to 119 and Harris English went form 132 to 124. Martin Piller and Tyron Van Aswegen dropped out.

And then there were 10

There are 10 players who have qualified for each of the 12 FedEx Cup playoffs dating to the first one in 2007: Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson, Adam Scott, Ryan Moore, Charley Hoffman and Charles Howell III.

Missing this year for the first time are Sergio Garcia, Bill Haas and Luke Donald.