Rory McIlroy ready to dig himself out of a hole at Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup Playoffs finale

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ATLANTA – If Rory McIlroy is to become the first to win the FedEx Cup three times, he’ll have to climb out of a big hole at the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club.

Because of the staggered scoring format used for the playoffs finale, McIlroy will begin Thursday’s first round at 2 under and eight shots behind leader Patrick Cantlay. But McIlroy isn’t throwing up a white golf flag.

“East Lake isn’t the easiest golf course in the world, and it seems to be a course that separates the field somewhat,” McIlroy said Wednesday ahead of a practice round. “So the way I look at it, if I go out tomorrow and shoot 6 under, for example, which is the score I shot last year in the first round, get to 8 under par, and some of those top guys shoot even par or even 1 or 2 over, all of a sudden you’re right in it.

“I feel like you can make up a lot of ground quickly. You can also lose a lot of ground quickly as well, depending on how it goes. But I certainly don’t feel like I’m out of it. I don’t feel like I’m too far behind. Eight shots around this golf course doesn’t seem like that much, so I’m still pretty optimistic.”

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And he has good memories to call upon. Under a different scoring format, McIlroy won his first FedEx Cup in 2016. In 2019, the first year the playoffs used the current staggered scoring format, McIlroy overcame a poor starting position to join Tiger Woods as the only players to win the season-long race twice.

“I started five back, and I ended up winning the tournament by three,” McIlroy said. “It’s not an insurmountable advantage like it has been in previous years where guys have turned up to the Tour Championship not having to do anything to win the FedExCup. There’s been a few iterations of it, and I think this is definitely the best format so far. There’s clarity for the players. There’s clarity for the fans.

“It’s the playoffs, and I think everyone that’s in the top 30 deserves to be here and then because of that everyone in the top 30 deserves to feel like they have a chance to win it all. I went into two playoff runs being No. 1 in 2012 and 2014 and didn’t win either of them. So I’ve been on both sides of the coin here.”

McIlroy would have been closer to the lead if not for Sungjae Im’s brilliant finish in the final round of last week’s BMW Championship at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Maryland.

“I saw Sungjae this morning at breakfast, and when I finished on Sunday, it looked like I was projected to start the tournament this week at 4 under and then Sungjae birdied 17, and then I was projected to start the week at 3 under, and then he birdied the last and I went down to 2 under.”

Still, McIlroy has a chance. And he has some good mojo on his side. He started play last week in 28th place in the standings, with only the top 30 earning spots at East Lake in the final tournament of the season. Knowing he had to play well, McIlroy played very well.

He shot rounds of 64-70-65-67 to finish fourth, five shots behind eventual winner Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau, both of whom finished regulation at 27 under before Cantlay won a six-hole playoff.

“I’m just happy to be here, to be honest,” said McIlroy, who won his 19th PGA Tour title earlier this year at the Wells Fargo Championship. “I knew I needed at least a decent week to make it here and it turned out to be a bit better than that. I probably played some of the best golf I’ve played all year.”

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