With only two weeks left in the FedExCup Playoffs, it's all about the numbers and who moves in and who moves out.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Henrik Stenson's first visit to East Lake next week could be a very lucrative one. If he can win the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola, the Swede will be guaranteed the FedExCup and its $10 million bonus.
That's the benefit of ranking inside the top five in FedExCup points after this week's BMW Championship. Although the points will be reset to give each of the 30 survivors a mathematical chance to win the FedExCup in Atlanta, the biggest advantage goes to the five players at the top of the list.
Consider it the game within the game at Conway Farms.
For most players in the 70-man field, the primary goal of course is to stay or move inside the top 30 and keep their FedExCup hopes alive. But a big performance this week could put you inside the top five and significantly increase your odds of winning the PGA TOUR's biggest prize.
Only the top five going into East Lake are guaranteed the FedExCup should any one of them win the TOUR Championship. Everyone else must rely on help from others.
Stenson, the current points leader after winning the Deutsche Bank Championship, is one of three players all but assured of top-five status. The other two are his playing partners for the first two rounds, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott.
Stenson said Tuesday he figured the possibility exists he could slip outside the top five depending on the final leaderboard configuration. Technically, he's correct; there are certain scenarios that could move Stenson out of the top five if he plays badly this week and the others immediately behind him in points play well.
But the odds are so remote and unlikely that he probably shouldn't bother sweating it.
"I haven't spent that much time looking at the points table," Stenson said.
If he did, he would see that the top three have separated themselves from the rest of the pack -- Stenson and Scott thanks to their wins in the first two Playoffs events, and Woods thanks to his five wins in the regular season.
Scott, No. 3 in points, is 814 points ahead of the next closest pursuer, Matt Kuchar. That's more than double the next biggest margin between any two consecutive positions on the points list.
If that's not enough of a comfort level, then consider these two facts from the previous four years of the current FedExCup points configuration:
• No player who has won one of the first three Playoffs event has been outside the top five when heading to East Lake. That's why Stenson and Scott -- and this week's BMW Championship winner -- should make up three-fifths of the top five.
• No player ranked inside the top three in points going into the BMW has ever dropped outside the top five once the event was completed. That bodes well for Woods, who is No. 2 in points but hasn't won a Playoffs event this year.
"Obviously after Chicago it's important that I'm in the top five," Woods said.
Then he added: "Hopefully first."
Thus, at most, two of the top five spots are up for grabs this week, and the most vulnerable to drop out should they produce so-so performances are No. 4 Kuchar and No. 5 Graham DeLaet.
The ever-steady Kuchar is the current active cuts leader on TOUR, having made 25 consecutive cuts -- and he won't have to worry about it this week, since there is no cut). DeLaet is merely the hottest non-winner in the Playoffs, with a tie for second at The Barclays and a third at Deutsche Bank. That stretch earned him a spot on the International team for next month's Presidents Cup.
But the latest projected points needed to finish inside the top five is 3,182. Kuchar (3,103) and DeLaet (2,806) start this week below that threshold.
That makes Kuchar's goal a simple one this week. "Stay inside the top five come TOUR Championship and have a chance to win the FedExCup," he said.
To knock out one of those two players and bust the top-five bubble this week, you basically have to either win the tournament or finish as a runner-up.
A year ago, Phil Mickelson tied for second at Crooked Stick, enabling him to move from ninth to fourth in points and push out Louis Oosthuizen, who went from fifth to sixth after a T-16.
In 2011, Justin Rose's win forced Brandt Snedeker out of the top five. Snedeker finished T-22 that week.
In 2010, Paul Casey finished second and moved from 21st to 5th. Dustin Johnson won that week to move from 16th to second. In the process, Luke Donald and Jason Day were knocked out of the top five.
In 2009, Jim Furyk's tie for second moved him to third place in the standings, with Scott Verplank sliding from fifth to eighth after his T-38.
"If you play well in these events," Johnson said, "it puts you in a really good position going into next week."
Even though he's playing in his first FedExCup Playoffs, Jordan Spieth has grasped the importance of positioning. He'll start the BMW ranked 10th, which will guarantee that the 20-year-old will be the youngest player to ever reach the TOUR Championship.
But he wants more.
"A goal of mine is to finish whatever I have to finish to try and control my own destiny next week," Spieth said Wednesday on the eve of the tournament. "I think that's a big story line for this tournament is how can players work their way into the top 5."
Other than winning, Spieth is not entirely sure how he goes about it.
"I got fourth last week and dropped a spot," he said, "so I'm not sure exactly what I have to do.
Having stressed the importance of being inside the top five, though, please be aware of one thing:
You still have to perform at East Lake.
Snedeker's win a year ago was the first time in the current points arrangement that a top-five player won the title by winning the TOUR Championship. Furyk and Bill Haas won their FedExCups from outside the top five while receiving lots of help on the leaderboard. Woods won his second FedExCup title in 2009 by finishing second to TOUR Championship winner Mickelson.
With so many scenarios and so much uncertainty, it's no wonder that players are prone to keeping their eyes focused on the simple task of playing well and letting the points shake themselves out.
"I'm thinking about playing golf these two weeks, doing the best I can each round and each shot and each hole," Stenson said. "We'll see if it's good enough when we add it up."
Every player in the field would love to find the kind of hot hand Stenson has right now, his win at TPC Boston culminating a five-start stretch in which he finished top three or better four times.
Although just two events are left in the 2013 season, the high stakes of the FedExCup Playoffs allow even struggling players to end with a flourish.
Luke Donald, for instance, enters this week ranked 54th in points after a disappointing season by his lofty standards. But the former No. 1 knows Conway Farms better than any other player in the field -- after all, he's a dues-paying member here -- and a win this week sets him up to pursue that $10 million check.
"This year I still have time to rescue it," Donald said. "I'm going to have to do that this week, and that's the beauty of the FedExCup.
"It takes one good week to rescue a year."
And it takes one good week to move inside the top five in points -- a spot every player dreaming of the FedExCup title hopes to achieve after Sunday.
|Even No. 1 isn't safe|
Though he enters the week atop the FedExCup standings, there’s no guarantee that Henrik Stenson will even be able to control his own fate at East Lake. Here’s one scenario in which the FedExCup leader would leave Conway Farms outside the top 5.
A final leaderboard of 1. Steve Stricker, 2. Justin Rose, 3. Matt Kuchar, 4. Adam Scott and 5. Tiger Woods with Stenson finishing 61st (or worse) would leave the FedExCup standings as follows: