JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Based on the current points structure, there is one certainty about the four-event FedExCup Playoffs, which begin Thursday at The Barclays.
The top five in points heading into the final event, the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola, will control their own destiny.
And based on recent Playoffs history, there is another near-certainty.
A win in any of the first three Playoffs events should put you in the top five going into East Lake.
With FedExCup points worth five times as much in the Playoffs than the PGA TOUR Season, winners of The Barclays, Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship will greatly improve their odds of winning the FedExCup. Each tournament winner receives 2,500 points, which means two-thirds of the field this week at Liberty National (anyone currently ranked 84th or better) can overtake Tiger Woods atop the points list.
Woods understands his reign at No. 1 in points could end if he doesn't win this week. He also knows the importance of being in the top five.
"It will be interesting to see what happens," Woods said. "You're basically playing for top five positioning going into the TOUR Championship. Win it, and that will assure you being the champion of the Playoffs."
That's why in the next five weeks, you will hear plenty of talk about the importance of the top five.
After the BMW Championship, FedExCup points are reset, guaranteeing each of the top-five players the FedExCup title and the $10 million bonus should he win at East Lake. The other 25 players in the field must count on help from others, hoping the leaderboard falls their way.
That doesn't mean someone outside the top five can't win the FedExCup. Just ask Bill Haas, who was 25th when he beat Hunter Mahan in sudden death to win the TOUR Championship and the FedExCup in 2011. Or Jim Furyk, who was 11th when he double-dipped in 2010.
But the dominos had to fall correctly for that to happen. They didn't fall in place for Phil Mickelson in 2009.
He came to East Lake ranked No. 14 and won the tournament, but Woods, who was No. 1 entering the TOUR Championship, finished second to claim his second FedExCup. Had Woods finished seventh or worse, Mickelson would have won the FedExCup that year.
So the top five matters. But with the points quintupled as the fields are progressively reduced, a lot can change between the time the top 125 open the Playoffs and the 30 survivors emerge after the BMW Championship at Conway Farms.
As he has three previous times, Woods comes to The Barclays ranked No. 1 in the FedExCup standings. Woods is bidding for his third FedExCup title -- but interestingly, for the first time, he isn't the only FedExCup winner situated in the all-important top five.
Brandt Snedeker, who won last year's FedExCup, is ranked No. 3 right now and has assured himself a spot at East Lake. It will be the first time a reigning FedExCup champ has made it back to the TOUR Championship to defend.
Haas came close to returning to East Lake after his 2011 FedExCup victory but ended up missing out by two spots. He's fifth in the standings this year, though, while rounding out the current top five are Matt Kuchar at No. 2 and Mickelson at No. 4.
Haas enters the Playoffs with one victory but a steady nine top-10s, which leads the TOUR. Snedeker is second with eight.
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Haas feels the sense of urgency.
"Maybe my goal the next few weeks is to not fall back too much, because it can happen," Haas said. "If I don't do well, I can get leapfrogged by some people, and the goal is to be as high as you can going into East Lake, and that's THE main goal is to get into East Lake and all that.
"The year I won, I was (25th), and just happened to work out. I don't want to be that far down and have to have that many good things have to go my way. You would rather play your way into Atlanta, and you might as well be as high up as you can."
Consider this scenario in 2009, the first year of the current points structure.
Heath Slocum was at home in Atlanta after missing the cut at the Wyndham Championship, watching the projected standings on PGATOUR.COM to see if he would even make the field for The Barclays in 2009. He finished 124th, went on to win at Liberty National and vaulted to No. 3 -- which remains the largest single jump in Playoffs history. He later started the TOUR Championship ranked fifth and went on to finish eighth.
Slocum wasn't the only change, either. Just three players that year who ranked in the top five entering The Barclays were still there three weeks later when the BMW Championship was in the books. That number was one in 2010, two in 2011 and two in 2012.
So maybe we should add another certainty about the Playoffs: Starting in the top five entering The Barclays guarantees you nothing. You must still perform in the Playoffs to maintain a top-five spot.
To be fair, winning isn't the only way to grab one of those coveted control-your-own-fate spots in Atlanta. During the last four years, at least one player has played his way into the top five entering the TOUR Championship without a Playoffs victory.
Furyk did it in 2009 with a tie for 15th at The Barclays, tie for eighth at the Deutsche Bank Championship and tie for second at the BMW Championship. Paul Casey accomplished it in 2010 (T12, T25 and second). Kuchar did it in 2011 (second, T25 and T22).
Last year, Mickelson (T38, T4 and T2) and Snedeker (second, sixth and T37) earned top-five spots with their consistent performances.
So it's important to play well in the first three Playoffs events to give yourself a chance. But once you make it to East Lake, you've got to play well there, too. Just ask Rory McIlroy. He won the Deutsche Bank and BMW a year ago but tied for 10th at the TOUR Championship and finished second in points to Snedeker.
The bottom line is that four events are left on four great golf courses. The best players in the world are involved. A sense of urgency, unique to the FedExCup Playoffs, fills the air.
"If you're not hyped up for this," Haas said, "then something's wrong."