LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- It's safe to say no one in the 70-man field at this week's BMW Championship is more familiar with Conway Farms than Luke Donald.
Donald first started playing Tom Fazio-designed course when he was a student at Northwestern in the late 1990s. He has since joined the club and alternates his practice sessions between Conway Farms, which is about 20 minutes from his Chicago home, and North Shore Country Club, which is slightly closer.
"We played a bunch of different private courses at Northwestern and Conway was always my favorite," Donald said. "It's a course that's not extremely difficult but it tests you every day."
Donald, who comes into the BMW Championship ranked 54th in the FedExCup, appreciates that familiarity even more this year. Only the top 30 in the FedExCup standings on Sunday at the end of 72 holes at Conway Farms advance to next week's TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola, where the winner of the FedExCup and its $10 million bonus will be decided.
"If there was ever a year to struggle, to come into an event needing a big week, this is a good one to come to," Donald said with a wry smile. "Obviously it's a course I'm very familiar with. ... Obviously never set up in tournament conditions, but certainly have a lot more familiarity than most of the players who probably are seeing it for the first time.
"Hopefully that's an advantage for me."
The other 69 FedExCup survivors certainly face a steeper learning curve at Conway Farms, which opened in 1991 and has an all-walking policy. Only players with a medical condition or who are aged 60 or older can use a cart at the 7,149-yard, par-71 layout that has played host to the 1997 NCAAs, the 2009 Western Amateur and the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur, among other national events.
But never the PGA TOUR until this week.
Tiger Woods, for one, found himself working more diligently than usual with caddie Joe LaCava during Wednesday's pro-am. Woods has seven wins in the Chicago area but that was his first look at the tree-lined course that Donald says also features something of a "prairie" or links feel that is spiced with ample fescue grasses.
"It helps that Joey has been out here a couple days getting the lines out, and we were discussing a lot of it today," Woods, who shot a bogey-free 68, said. "... I had to do a little bit of work because I wasn't out here yesterday. Trying to get the speed of the greens a little bit. They were a little bit quicker early on, slowed up a little bit as the day went on.
"But overall the golf course is in absolutely perfect shape, so it's going to be a fun week."
The fifth hole, a 469-yard par 4 that features a long carry over a water hazard off the tee and a long iron to a green that slopes away from the center, will likely be the toughest this week. But the final five holes should provide high drama.
The 14th, which is one of Donald's favorites, is a 585-yard par 5 that is reachable in the right wind. At 334 yards, the 15th is a tempting, reachable par 4, followed by a closing three-hole stretch that includes a 465-yard par 4, a 207-yard par 3 and 570-yard par 5.
"There's definitely some birdie holes out there," said Donald, whose low at Conway Farms is a 61 that came before several changes were made. "You've going to have two par 5s in the last five holes ... so I think the last few holes will give some excitement to the tournament. A lot of things can happen."
Woods agreed with Donald's local knowledge.
"There's some tough ones in there, and there's also a drivable one," Woods said. "It'll be interesting to see where they move the tees around and either give us a chance or not a chance. Two of the holes are pretty simple. It's two good birdie holes, and 18 is obviously a good drive, you can make a 3 depending on the pin."
By most all accounts, Conway Farms is more generous off the tee than Cog Hill, which hosted the BMW Championship four times in the six previous Playoffs and its predecessor, the Western Open, on 16 other occasions. There's a lot of movement on the greens, though, and precise shots must be hit to different quadrants in order to get at certain pins.
"Cog Hill is a little bit harder green complexes, I think, a little bit more manufactured, a little bit tougher to get to some of the pin locations, where here I think you can get to a lot of them," said Steve Stricker, a former Western Open champ who finished second at last week's Deutsche Bank Championship.
"I think the scoring is going to be a little bit better here than what we've seen at Cog Hill. But this is going to be a good test. ... I came down Sunday and played, and I was talking to the head pro and the director of golf, and wind and firm conditions are what make this course challenging. So that's hopefully that's what they're hoping for is some wind and some firm conditions to challenge us."
Looks like both are on the agenda.
The prevailing wind Monday through Wednesday has been from the south and west, which, according to Donald, makes the course play somewhat shorter. The wind will be from the north to northeast during the first two rounds, gusting to 25 mph on Friday, before switching back to the south, southwest for the weekend.
"It's not a very difficult golf course, but I think when the wind comes out of the east and the north, which it could well do come the tournament days, it's going to play a little tougher," Donald said.
Zach Johnson, who ranks 27th in the FedExCup, first played Conway Farms during the 1997 NCAA Tournament and missed the cut. Everyone gets four rounds this week, though, and with the wind moderating to the 7-12 mph range on the weekend, the birdies could fly.
"It's going to be condition based, and the greens are firm and fast, so ... especially if the wind doesn't pick up, par is not going to be a great score come four days," Johnson said. "But we're used to that. Making birdies is part of it.
"You know, the next week we play in Atlanta, hopefully I get there, par is a premium. There's different attributes to courses that just make it difficult, and this has got some teeth, it's just a matter of it's going to be based on wind."