By Alex Micelli, Golfweek
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – It doesn’t seem that long ago when Tiger Woods led the FedEx Cup points list at the end of the regular season and was the top seed going into the playoffs.
Well, it was 2009, and Woods would go on to win the FedEx Cup playoffs that year and the windfall that comes with the victory.
That was the last time Woods was in the top position going into the playoffs. Since ‘09, Woods has yielded the spot to Ernie Els in 2010 and Nick Watney in 2011, neither of whom could hold on. Instead, Jim Furyk (2010) and Bill Haas (2011) were victorious.
Now the focus returns to Woods. He again leads going into the playoffs. With the Tour’s return to Bethpage Black, the scene of one of Woods’ 14 major victories (the 2002 U.S. Open), for The Barclays this week, Woods certainly is a favorite.
“This is all the golf course you want,” Woods said of Bethpage Black, which also hosted the 2009 U.S. Open. “It’s a great venue, great fans and just a great environment to compete in.”
Irrespective of the course, the fans or the environment, Woods will be facing possibly his most formidable opponent in the playoffs: 23-year-old Rory McIlroy.
In 2007, multiple major winners Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh were in the top 10 of FedEx Cup points list, and Mickelson also was among the top 10 in 2009, yet neither really pushed Woods as he won the FedEx Cup.
In the past 15 months, McIlroy has won two major championships: the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship, both by eight shots.
“He’s by far the youngest,” Woods said of McIlroy, comparing the Northern Irishman with the other key challengers in the Tiger Woods era. “I was always the youngest against – when I played against Vijay, Phil and Ernie, Goose (Retief Goosen). We went at it for just over a decade. I was always the youngest one out of that group.”
Woods won’t have to look far Thursday to see how McIlroy is doing. McIlroy, No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, will be paired with No. 3 Woods and 14th-ranked Zach Johnson. It will be the featured pairing for Long Island’s golf fans in the playoff opener.
“It really focuses you from the get-go, a pairing like that,” McIlroy said. “I feel every time I’ve played with Tiger, he’s sort of brought the best out of me. I really feel focused and obviously want to play well.”
Now the hard part for the two is to live up to the hype. Woods, a three-time winner this season, is back on his game but has struggled at times to put four good rounds in the books. McIlroy has gotten over his summer doldrums and showed why he is on top of the world rankings.
A dominant performance this week at Bethpage and in the final three playoff events, culminating with the Sept. 20-23 Tour Championship in Atlanta, would go a long way toward solidifying McIlroy as the man to beat in golf.
At the same time, if Woods can fend off all challengers over the next four tournaments, he likely would ascend back to World No. 1 and erase any doubt that he might be back.
“I think the thing about the best players in the world and maybe the people that are slightly under, they’re just able to get it done,” McIlroy said. “It’s hard for me to sit up here and say that I’m the best player in the world or Tiger is. Sure, I feel like I’m the best, and Tiger feels like he’s the best. It’s really a hard one for me to come up here and say. Tiger has been the best player in the world for the last 15 years. Just that people that are mentioning my name with the likes of him is a huge compliment.”