Rory McIlroy (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
2016 FedEx Cup champion Rory McIlroy (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

When Rory McIlroy won the 2016 FedExCup, he not only beat a great field. He overcame some big-time odds.

A year ago, McIlroy began the playoffs in 36th place. When he won the TOUR Championship and snatched the FedExCup away from the favorites, he became only the second player in the event’s 10-year history to come from outside the top 20 and win it all.

It seems like an anomaly. The PGA TOUR created the year-long FedExCup competition to reward consistent play over the entire season, but it also provides an incentive to the player who gets hot in the Playoffs. That’s what McIlroy did a year ago.

This year, No. 36 is Bill Haas, and if that name sounds familiar, well, he did, um, win the FedExCup in 2011.

The odds still remain on the side of those near the top of the standings when the Playoffs begin this week at The Northern Trust in New York. In six of the first 10 FedExCup races, the winner has entered the Playoffs inside the top 10. But twice in the last three years, the victor has come from outside the top 30. That includes McIlroy and the patron saint of all longshots, Billy Horschel, who entered the Playoffs at No. 69 in 2014 and was lifting the trophy on the 18th green at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club four weeks later.

Such are the dreams of the FedExCup Playoffs.

“I think the great thing about the FedExCup is you have something to play for after the major (championship) season,” McIlroy said. “You have goals, you have ambitions, you have the drive to work hard for something else and I really wanted to work hard to try to at least give myself a chance in the Playoffs.”

That was the idea when then PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem conceived the Playoffs. The PGA TOUR found a way to create meaningful golf when the four major championships were finished and fans were beginning to turn their attention to American football. The popularity of golf’s postseason now continues to grow each year in terms of attendance, sponsorship and the digital audience.

“The FedExCup has turned out to be a vehicle that really excites the players,” said Finchem. “The players get into it. That translates into what you communicate. That translates into the fans’ interest. And the nature of the competition, the way it’s structured, pretty much guarantees that at each level of the competition, the year-long level, the Playoffs, the finals, the competition gets stronger.”

The FedExCup Playoffs are made up of four consecutive events that carry the same win-or-go-home playoff drama as the nation’s other major sports. Players are eliminated week by week, and only the top 30 qualify for the TOUR Championship. The FedExCup champion earns a U.S. $10 million bonus, which is enough to get the attention of even the most-successful players in the field. A win also comes with a five-year PGA TOUR exemption.

“You won the season-long race for that year, and there’s a significant bonus that comes with it, which is a life-changing type of experience,” said 2015 FedExCup winner Jordan Spieth. “It encompasses it all. So, it’s extremely important.”

Not everyone gets in. Playoff participants must qualify. The field for the FedExCup Playoffs is set now that the Wyndham Championship, the final event prior to the Playoffs, is history. The top-125 players on the points list not only earn their exempt status for the next season, they also advance to the Playoffs. Zac Blair is this year’s odd-man out, finishing No. 126.

For players like Blair, they will play in the Tour finals, the top-126 to 200 players vs. the top-75 money-winners on the Tour money list. For those in the FedExCup Playoffs, the longer they can keep playing, the more money they earn and the more status they accumulate for the next season.

The postseason begins with The Northern Trust at Glen Oaks Club in Old Westbury, N.Y.  The tournament has been the first event in the series since the inception of the playoffs but will be played at Glen Oaks, a Joe Finger design, for the first time. Patrick Reed won the tournament a year ago when it was held at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course.

From there, the top 100 on the points list advance to the Dell Technologies Championship, Sept. 1-4, at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass., the host site since the Playoffs began. The unique feature about this event is its conclusion; the final round is held on Labor Day, a U.S. national holiday that always falls on a Monday. McIlroy won the event a year ago and used the victory to secure his spot in the TOUR Championship.

The Playoffs take a break for a week and return Sept. 14-17 at the BMW Championship at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, Ill., a Chicago suburb. This will be the third time the Tom Fazio design has hosted the event. Jason Day shot a 61 there in 2015 and went on to win the tournament. Dustin Johnson won the BMW in 2016 when it was contested at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind.

The top-70 players on the points list are eligible for the BMW Championship and they compete in a no-cut tournament. This allows them the chance to make up ground on the weekend. A strong effort can push a player from the back of the pack and into the TOUR Championship.

Roberto Castro did this a year ago when he began the week No. 53, only to finish third and jump all the way to No. 21. Castro made a similar move in 2013 when he qualified for the TOUR Championship for the first time.

But the drama works both ways. Rickie Fowler entered the BMW at No. 22, but dropped to No. 31 when he finished 59th and fell out contention for the FedExCup. Sergio Garcia and Brooks Koepka also missed the TOUR Championship due to sub-par performances at the BMW Championship.

The final Playoffs leg takes place at East Lake, the former home course of Bobby Jones. It has been the permanent site of the TOUR Championship since 2004 and has hosted The FedExCup finale since it was established in 2007.

Unlike the other playoff events, the players’ points reset for the TOUR Championship. This gives each player in the field a mathematical chance to win and ensures any of the top-five players will win the FedExCup if they are victorious at East Lake.

While the playoff system is weighted toward those who have performed the best during the season, Horschel and McIlroy have proven that anyone can possibly win the FedExCup. Of course, someone from the back of the pack must take advantage of a few breaks to make it happen.

A year ago, McIlroy needed Johnson to tie for second or worse at the TOUR Championship in order to have a chance. McIlroy did his part—eventually beating Ryan Moore on the fourth hole of sudden death—and Johnson tying for sixth, which gave the Northern Irishman his first FedExCup title.

“The golf that I needed to produce to win, it ranks right up there,” McIlroy said. “To go out and shoot 66-64 on the weekend to win the TOUR Championship and ultimately win the FedExCup, that ranks up there with some of my best performances.”

The winner of the TOUR Championship typically wins the FedExCup, but that’s not always the case. In 2007, Colombia’s Camillo Villegas won the tournament, but Vijay Singh won the FedExCup. In 2008, Phil Mickelson was triumphant at East Lake, but Tiger Woods won the FedExCup. The points system that determines the winner has been tweaked since and gives the winner of the TOUR Championship an advantage.

The FedExCup Playoffs continue to grow in stature and prestige among the players. Although a bonus check for $10 million remains a major incentive, the Playoffs aren’t considered simply a “cash grab.” It has come to have deeper meaning.

Day said, “More so than money, I’d rather have my name on the trophy, and that’s just me personally, because how much is enough? We all have money, but I don’t have my name on the FedExCup trophy, and that’s what I really want.”

Adam Scott said, “It’s not less important, but I think the importance of the FedExCup has lifted over 10 years of history. The prize money or the bonus for winning the FedExCup is still there, but I think there was no history behind the FedExCup 10 years ago, and now there is some. So just the importance of the trophy is greater. Maybe they’re on a similar level.”

Woods is the only player to win the FedExCup twice (2007 and 2009). Other winners include major champions like Singh, Jim Furyk, Henrik Stenson, Spieth and McIlroy. But the door is open for the likes of Haas, Horschel and Brandt Snedeker, too.

Snedeker, the 2012 FedExCup winner, said, “The way the Playoffs have kind of evolved into this unbelievable championship that we have at East Lake, the finale, I think guys realize how important it is, and we’re talking about it. I remember people kind of sneering when we first started this, thinking this is never going to be as important as a major, and now you hear guys talking about it as if it’s a fifth major, as something that is that important.”

(Story courtesy of the PGA Tour)

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