By Dave Shedloski
The final event of the CBS golf season is the first of the FedExCup Playoffs, which has a new sponsor and all-new venue. The Northern Trust begins Thursday at Glen Oaks Club in Old Westbury, N.Y., on Long Island, with 120 players entered among the top 125 in the season-long FedExCup points race who qualified.
Hideki Matsuyama of Japan is the pacesetter, but the four-tournament playoff stretch contested over the next five weeks is sure to see movement aplenty in the race for the coveted FedExCup title decided at The TOUR Championship in Atlanta. Points are quadrupled in the Playoffs, so 2,000 points go to the winner, giving 38 players a mathematical chance to overtake Matsuyama for the No. 1 spot with a win this week.
The last player to enter the Playoffs in first and go on to win was Jordan Spieth in 2015, and before that Tiger Woods in 2009.
The next four behind Matsuyama are Justin Thomas, the new PGA champion, British Open winner Spieth, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, and Rickie Fowler, the TOUR’s scoring leader. The hot hand coming in is 2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson, who won last week’s Wyndham Championship.
>>MORE: Favorite Course: Glen Oaks Club
This week is about jockeying for position as the field will be cut to 100 players for the following event. The golfers will be also playing for The Northern Trust’s purse of $8.75 million. The immaculately kept Glen Oaks, par 70 and 7,350 yards, has been described as sort of “Augusta National of the North” by golf aficionados. And with its wide fairways and slick greens, it might play a bit like Erin Hills did in June at the 117th U.S. Open, won by Brooks Koepka, who is No. 7 in the standings, one place ahead of rookie Jon Rahm.
Notable players outside the top 100 include 2016 PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker at 101st, Steve Stricker, the U.S. Presidents Cup captain (110) and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson (113).
CBS Sports lead golf analyst Sir Nick Faldo assesses the scene as the FedExCup Playoffs, now in their 11th season, gets underway.
You’re a three-time Masters champion. Does Glen Oaks radiate an Augusta National feel, and how will that impact play?
Sir Nick Faldo: The real bottom line is how it putts. There are so many bombers now. We spend so much time talking about the bombers, but look at what happened at Quail Hollow (in the PGA), where you have to hit the fairways, and then the key was holing putts over 15 feet. That’s what Justin Thomas did to win. It wasn’t about hitting it far, but keeping it in play and putting, and that will be the same thing at Glen Oaks. At the end of the day, mid-range putting determines a lot about who wins the tournament.
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You can’t win the FedExCup in this first week, but how important is a fast start?
Sir Nick Faldo: They had a great Playoffs last year. Everyone forgot about Rory a little bit, and that was a pretty amazing run he had, starting in Boston. There was one guy who could take away the FedExCup, and he went out and did it. Yeah, the top five have the edge, but you have to keep it going. But it’s always fun to see who might step up and put himself into the mix.
Hideki Matsuyama is the FedExCup leader. He’s had several close calls this year in majors. Could he be extra motivated in the coming month?
Sir Nick Faldo: A little bit. I think the FedExCup is a great goal, a great prize. It won’t take away the sting of not winning a major, but yes, it would give him a great feeling of doing something special. And he would get more recognition in America, which he deserves after such a great season overall.
On the other side is defending FedExCup champion Rory McIlroy, who won two Playoff events last year to take the title but hasn’t been sharp for much of 2017. How can he find some magic again?
Sir Nick Faldo: Obviously, the physical side is a little iffy. I talked to him about where he’s at health-wise. That will dictate his playing schedule. He might be kind of fragile, so he can’t push it. As for his game, he’s still just fine-tuning again. He needs to get his distance control down again with his shorter clubs. He’s driving it incredibly well. A couple of more shots in his repertoire where he can dial in the distance control would make a difference and he’s working on that. It would make huge difference. He has to hit his bad ones better.
With only one week off since his victory in the PGA Championship, do you expect Justin Thomas to continue to have a hot hand?
Sir Nick Faldo: He can ride the wave for a little while. It can work two ways. You either ride the confidence or you exhale a bit. You can’t blame it on stamina at such a young age. He’ll be plenty fresh. He can go as hard as he can for a month and then the Presidents Cup, and then he’s off to the Bahamas.
Who in your mind is the most dangerous player when you look at a four-tournament stretch?
Sir Nick Faldo: Henrik Stenson always has the game. But I thought his concentration and his focus kicked in last week, and it showed. That’s always a key as you get older; you have to push yourself, and he did great. One more big push at the end of the season, and there you go. He has the mental strength because he did it before.
Your favorites and dark horses?
Sir Nick Faldo: I know Jason Day has been really happy about his game of late, but he didn’t quite let it happen at the PGA. The crazy-mad decision on Saturday (with a quadruple bogey at 18) really cost him. He might be ready to put it all together again. For a long shot of sorts, I like Harold Varner, who did well last week to get into the playoffs, so he could definitely contend again.
Journalist and author David Shedloski of Columbus, Ohio, has been covering golf since 1986, first as a daily newspaper reporter and later as a freelance writer for various magazines and Internet outlets. A winner of 23 national writing awards, including 20 for golf coverage, Shedloski is currently a contributing writer for Golf World and GolfDigest.com and serves as editorial director for The Memorial, the official magazine of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. He is the author of three books and has contributed to three others, including the second edition of “Golf For Dummies,” with Gary McCord. He’s a fan of all Cleveland professional sports teams, the poor fellow.