Inside the Ropes: McIlroy is huge favorite in Tour Championship

Tom LaMarre, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange


The way Rory McIlroy is playing, the temptation might be to hand him the FedEx Cup before the Tour Championship.
McIlroy has been so dominant lately that in 2007 or 2008, the first two years of the PGA Tour playoffs, the $10 million prize would simply have come down to him finishing the finale at East Lake.
When Vijay Singh captured the first two playoff events in 2008, the Barclays and the Deutsche Bank Championship, he had wrapped up the title after three events even though he could manage only a tie for 44th in the BMW Championship.
All he had to do was remain standing at the end of the Tour Championship, in which he tied for 22nd.
So commissioner Tim Finchem and the PGA Tour decided that starting in 2009, the FedEx point standings would be reset heading into the finale so that if any of the top five players won the tournament, he also would capture the FedEx Cup.
"It's interesting. You can go and win the first three playoff events, finish second in the last one and not win it," Tiger Woods said during the BMW Championship two weeks ago at Crooked Stick.
"It's a different type of format, but it's what we have, and the whole idea is if the guys who are near the top five or just outside the top five win the last two events, you know you're going to win it, so the idea is to go out there and get Ws."
No format is going to be perfect, and the PGA Tour has not tinkered with it since.
One of the most fascinating aspects about the volatile point swings that can take place during the playoffs is to watch the positions change rapidly on the television scoreboard as players scramble to make the top 30 and qualify for the Tour Championship.
Some of the players believe the point swings are too drastic, but that doesn't mean there will be more changes to the FedEx format any time soon.
"We just determined that after we got it to a point, we'd take a break and continue to monitor it and see how it works," Finchem said earlier this year.
"And it's worked well. But I think we should keep our minds open about changes in the future and listen to people."
Under the current rules, the five players who can claim the FedEx Cup and all that booty this week by winning the Tour Championship are McIlroy, Woods, Nick Watney, Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker.
"It'll be my first trip to East Lake, so it'll be a new golf course for me," said McIlroy, who is coming off victories in the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship.
"But that's what the FedEx Cup playoffs were designed for, to have the best players playing at this time of the year and to make it exciting. ... So you've got all these top guys with a chance to win going into Atlanta.
"It's what it's all about, and it makes it exciting for the end of the year."
Among the top five, the player who probably benefited the most from the week off was the 42-year-old Mickelson, who seemingly has had stamina problems this season -- perhaps because of his psoriatic arthritis.
However, he has played his best golf in the playoffs since his dominant victory at Pebble Beach in February.
"I'm really pleased with the way my game has come around the last two weeks," said Lefty, who tied for fourth in the Deutsche Bank and tied for second in the BMW. "It puts me in a position where if I can improve just a little bit more for the Tour Championship and win, I'll be able to win the FedEx Cup.
"I accomplished one of my goals, which was to get in the top five. The other would have been obviously to win. But more than that, I just feel really good about where my game is headed, and hopefully I'll keep improving on that."
Watney, who captured the Barclays to open the playoffs, and Snedeker, who finished in the top six in the first two playoff events, faltered a bit at the BMW Championship.
However, they are definitely capable of winning if McIlroy, Woods and Mickelson stumble.
"I just ran out of gas (in the BMW)," Watney said. "It was my sixth (week) in a row, and I was just very flat and just ran out of gas. ... But Bill (Haas) showed last year that there's always a chance.
"I think I'm just going there and trying to take care of business. Hopefully I can control my own destiny, but if I go there and win, the FedEx Cup will take care of itself."
If none of those players win, Louis Oosthuizen, Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner make up the rest of the top 10 and have the next best chance to take home the FedEx Cup.
Last year, because of a dramatic chain of events as the leaders faltered, Haas came from 25th in the point standings before the Tour Championship to claim the FedEx Cup when he won the finale by beating Hunter Mahan in a playoff.
Haas continued tradition by becoming the sixth consecutive defending FedEx champion, which means all of them, to fail to make it back to East Lake. He finished 32nd in the standings after the BMW Championship.
Woods won the inaugural title in 2007 but failed to make it back the next year because of knee surgery and won again in 2009 before failing to make it back after a lost season following his tabloid scandal.
Singh was plagued by injuries and poor play the year after winning in 2008, and Jim Furyk had a down season after claiming the title in 2010. Haas did not play well this season after beating Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in a playoff to win the Northern Trust Open.
Someone is bound to end the trend, and the smart money is on McIlroy. But he has to win this one first.

COMING UP
PGA TOUR: Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Thursday through Sunday.
TV: Thursday and Friday, 1-6 p.m. EDT on the Golf Channel; Saturday, noon-2 p.m. on the Golf Channel and 2-6 p.m. EDT on NBC, and Sunday, 11:30-1:30 p.m. EDT on the Golf Channel and 1:30-6 p.m. EDT on NBC.
LAST YEAR: Bill Haas, who started the week at 25th in the FedEx Cup standings, made a remarkable par out of the water on the second playoff hole before sinking a four-foot putt for par on the third extra hole to beat Hunter Mahan. He earned $1,440,000 for winning the tournament and $10 million for capturing the season-long FedEx Cup race. Haas, who closed with a 2-under-par 70, squandered a three-stroke lead by carding bogeys on the 16th and 18th holes in the final round. Mahan, who finished with a 71 after holding the 54-hole lead, made a birdie on the 15th hole to pull even and force the playoff. On the final playoff hole, Mahan hit into a greenside bunker and missed a 14-foot putt for par.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, N.C., Oct. 5-7.
TV: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 1-4 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.
LAST YEAR: Playing with a heavy heart, Kenny Perry holed a 30-foot eagle putt on the 17th hole in the final round and claimed his first Champions Tour victory by two strokes over Jeff Sluman and John Huston. The 51-year-old Perry, who won 14 times on the PGA Tour, nearly withdrew the night before the final round because of the death of his sister, Kay Perry, after a long battle with cancer. Kay died two years to the day after their mother, Mildred, also succumbed to cancer. Perry rebounded from a double-bogey 7 on the 12th hole, where he hit his approach shot into the water, to win with a closing 2-under-par 70.

LPGA TOUR: Navistar LPGA Classic at the Senator Course at Capitol Hill on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Pratville, Ala., Thursday through Sunday.
TV: Thursday and Friday, 6:30-8:30 p.m. EDT; Saturday and Sunday, 2-5 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.
LAST YEAR: Lexi Thompson built a seven-stroke lead midway through the final round and eventually won by five over Tiffany Joh to become the youngest winner in LPGA Tour history at the age of 16. Thompson, who opened with three rounds of 4-under-par 68 or better, closed with a 70 and broke the record held by Paula Creamer, who was 18 when she claimed her first LPGA victory in 2005. Thompson stumbled with bogeys on the 11th and 12th holes, allowing Joh to close the gap to three strokes, but the teenager regained control and locked up the victory with birdies on the 16th and 17th holes.