EDISON, N.J. — Recent history is what gives Hunter Mahan a level of optimism he would not ordinarily have at The Barclays.
For the first time in 10 years, he is at risk of ending a PGA Tour season without once finishing in the top three. For the first time in more than six years, Mahan is out of the top 50 in the world rankings. He starts the FedEx Cup playoffs at No. 71, his lowest position since the series began in 2007.
Mahan is the only player to have never missed a playoff event. That streak is in jeopardy.
He also knows how quickly it can turn around.
“Takes one good week to propel you up the board,” Mahan said, “and you can change the schematic of the whole thing.”
A year ago, Mahan was No. 62 in the FedEx Cup playoffs when he closed with a 65 and won The Barclays. That moved him to No. 1 in the standings, assured him a spot in the Tour Championship and impressed Tom Watson enough that he used a captain’s pick on Mahan for the Ryder Cup.
“You can have an OK season and all of a sudden you play good at the right time and be a FedEx Cup champion,” Mahan said. “It does feel like a late-season push here. You can kind of forget where you’ve been and you can really be right here because you know good play right now means a lot.”
One good week.
That’s what motivates players like Davis Love III and Jason Gore, who only qualified for the playoffs last week in North Carolina.
It’s not so much an issue for Masters and U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth, for PGA champion Jason Day and others who have played so well all year that they are virtually a lock for the Tour Championship at East Lake. Because the points are reset for the final event, whoever wins that event stands the best chance at capturing the $10 million bonus.
Only the top 125 players in the FedEx Cup standings are eligible for the playoffs, and there are some big names missing. Tiger Woods failed to qualify for the third time in the last five years. Ernie Els and Geoff Ogilvy didn’t make it for the first time. Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell are also missing out.
The Barclays features only a 120-man field because five players chose not to play.
Rory McIlroy wanted to give his ankle another week off to make sure there are no issues. He can afford to miss it at No. 9 in the standings. Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen, Francesco Molinari and Retief Goosen are also missing; Molinari, whose wife just had a baby, is No. 99, and so his season is over. Goosen is out of the top 100 and is also done for the season.
Only the top 100 players advance to Deutsche Bank Championship next week, and the top 70 will then move on to the BMW Championship. The top 30 go to the Tour Championship, a golden goose for some because it puts them in the majors for next year.
The change in the points system this year meant a little less volatility.
Points used to be worth five times as much as the regular season. Now they’re worth four times as much. What hasn’t changed is the need to play good golf, and the urgency depends on what kind of season a player has had.
Day and Dustin Johnson got off to a rough start on Wednesday. Day tweaked his back moving an item under his motor home, and he chose to sit out the pro-am as a precaution so he would be ready to play this weekend.
Johnson has been battling a chest infection for the last week and withdrew from the pro-am after seven holes. He won The Barclays the last time it was held at Plainfield in 2011, when it was shortened to 54 holes because of an approaching hurricane. That week started with an earthquake.
So far, it has been nothing but sunshine on a course that is likely to play firm and features a reachable par-4 for the closing hole.
Among the surprise guests this week is the 51-year-old Love, who won the Wyndham Championship to qualify for the playoffs. That put him at No. 76, meaning he is assured of playing the next two weeks, and a good performance will get him to Chicago for the third one.
As far as Love is concerned, the playoffs began last week. He faced the end of his season, and that’s what is on the line for 25 players this week.
“The huge jump I made last week, like Billy Horschel last year coming from the middle of the pack all the way to the winner, it’s very, very exciting,” Love said. “I’m excited to have gotten in this tournament. Guys have really focused on, ‘If I can just get in them, I can win it. I can win the whole thing.’ I think it’s really evolved, and I think it’s very exciting now.”
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