EDISON, N.J. -- Two races will be in effect Saturday at The Barclays. One involves finishing 18 holes at Plainfield Country Club before the first signs of Hurricane Irene kick in. The other involves trying to catch leader Matt Kuchar on a course that is yielding birdie opportunities on nearly every hole.
Trying to beat Mother Nature is always a difficult task, which is why the PGA TOUR shortened this event to 54 holes. The forecast turns ominous starting Saturday night, the course can't accept much more moisture, and there are larger issues far beyond what happens inside the ropes. As Peter Mele, the Executive Director of The Barclays, said: "Safety is a huge concern."
But for several hours starting Saturday morning, conditions should be playable. That means The Barclays can concentrate on the task at hand, which is determining a winner for the first event of this year's PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup.
That's where Kuchar comes in.
The defending champ goes into the final round at 14 under, one shot ahead of Dustin Johnson and Vijay Singh. Just five other players are within four shots of the lead. But Plainfield has been fairly defenseless this week, and if it stays that way Saturday, that will mean one thing.
"Tomorrow," said Dustin Johnson, "is going to be a shootout."
Indeed. Saturday's final round will not be a defensive battle. It will not be a day to play cautiously, to lightly tap the gas. You want to win The Barclays? You better be firing at pins at every opportunity ... because if you don't, you can bet somewhere else will.
"Somebody is going to get on a run tomorrow and shoot a low one," said Padraig Harrington, one of four players at 10 under par. "... It's not that big an ask to catch four shots."
Certainly not on this course. The field scoring average is 68.986, more than two strokes under par. Just one player in the top 42 on the leaderboard failed to break par in each of his first two rounds. That was Jimmy Walker, who opened with an even-par 71 before promptly producing a second-round 64.
Kuchar set the tone for the low scoring with a first-round 63 that he actually wrapped up early Friday morning; that ties for the lowest round of his TOUR career. Johnson -- who said that "every hole is a birdie hole" -- matched that in the second round and bemoaned all his missed opportunities to go lower, including failing to capitalize on either of the two back-nine par 5s as well as the drivable par-4 18th.
No wonder he was asked whether he was "disappointed" with a 63. He shook his head no. "A 63 is a 63," he said. "I'm going to be smiling."
Vijay Singh, the 48-year-old past champion of the FedExCup -- and a four-time champion of this event -- shot 64 on Friday; that's his lowest round on the PGA TOUR in more than two years. Justin Rose's 65 in the second round is his low round of the year. Others enjoyed similar success stories.
If you're making too many pars on Saturday, then you're probably going backwards. Asked on Friday after his round if he could see someone shooting 61 or 62 on Saturday, Singh went even lower.
"59s are out there," he said. "If you look at it, how easy it's playing. But you've got to be careful. There's a lot of trouble out there."
Kuchar hasn't found much trouble in the first two days, one of the reasons why he's leading. He even classified his second-round 65 as "not all that exciting." Yes, these guys are good, but ho-hum 65s are not usually the norm on the PGA TOUR.
Kuchar and playing partners Mark Wilson and Gary Woodland found out while playing their 17th hole on Friday that the tournament was going to be shortened to 54 holes. Wilson's first reaction? "Oh boy, now it's going to be a lot harder to catch him."
But Wilson, like his fellow competitors when quizzed about it, said the move was a correct one. "It is weird just trying to squeeze it all in and just trying to fight against Mother Nature. But I think they made a good call. The PGA TOUR seems to make the right call a lot."
Because of the decision, Kuchar theoretically gained a huge advantage. After all, he's 18 holes closer to the title than he would be if he was leading after 36 holes at a non-Hurricane Irene tournament.
He doesn't see it that way, though. And credit to him -- and all the others -- who'd rather decide this tournament over 72 holes but were on board with the decision to reduce it to 54.
"I think the standard 72 proves the best players generally come out winners after 72," he said. "So for me, I feel like the more golf we play, the better my chances.
"But given the situation, I love being on top of the leaderboard with 18 holes to go. Hard to try to find something to complain about with the situation I'm in."
Last year at Ridgewood, Kuchar shot 66 in the final round, then beat Martin Laird in a playoff. That moved him to the top of the FedExCup points standings. A similar result on Saturday would do the same thing.
But there will be a sense of urgency for all players. Soft greens and favorable pin placements have put a premium on scoring, and no one expects that to change. Kuchar, Johnson and Singh have separated themselves from the pack, but that just means other players will have no fear in trying to catch them.
"They know they're going to have to make birdies, too," Woodland said of the leaders. "They're not going to be playing conservative. I think there's a little less pressure coming from the back. Hopefully you get hot and the putts go in early."
The scoring opportunities on the back nine should make things particularly exciting. Not only has it been the easier of the two nines this week, but those two par-5s, the 148-yard par-3 11th and the 285-yard par-4 closing hole -- which ranks as the second easiest hole on the course -- mean you can make up lots of ground down the stretch.
Singh has the best scoring average on the front nine in the first two rounds; Kuchar ranks second. Johnson, surprisingly, is tied for 52nd in back nine scoring. He's done all his damage on the front.
Front, back -- it may not really matter. It's down to an 18-hole shootout to beat the oncoming weather and take the first big step toward the FedExCup crown. Figuring out the course of action in terms of the tournament schedule may have been difficult; figuring out the course of action on how to approach Saturday's final round is easy.
"We know what we've got to do now," Singh said. "Go at the flags."