Playoffs? Playoffs? Did you say playoffs?
Yes, it's time for the contrived series of events that still make very little sense to anyone who watches the Tour on a regular basis. Case in point: did Brandt Snedeker have the best season in 2012? Did Bill Haas in 2011? The answer to both is no, but they won the Tour Championship and therefore the $10 million bonus the Tour doles out for it. It can theoretically happen that a player can not win the Tour Championship and still win the FedEx Cup title, but not since the days of Tiger Woods' dominance has that be realistic.
In short, guys need to survive with decent finishes during the first three events, then win at East Lake to close the year. A funny way to close a 40-event season in my opinion, but whatever drives the ratings and grows the game... and I'm serious when I say that. The smartest thing the Tour ever did was decide to end the primetime season before the start of NFL and college football.
The last time Liberty National hosted The Barclay's, the kickoff event of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, was in 2009, when Health Slocum(!) bucked the odds and took down Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker, Paddy Harrington and Ernie Els in a one-shot victory. That famed history is backed up by a general dislike of the layout by Tour pros -- an impressive combination.
A 2012 survey by Golf Digest revealed that Tour players believed the track was the “worst course” the Tour had visited, ranking a 4.58 on a 10 scale. With comments such as, “they should have left it as a dump,” referring to Liberty National's previous status of being a toxic landfill, it’s no wonder that a couple of the top guns are skipping the first week of the FedEx Cup (FEC) Playoffs.
While the course’s aesthetics have never been argued (almost every hole has a view of Manhattan and/or the Statue of Liberty) its layout epitomizes modern golf: a $250 million build out on which players face long, often tricked-up holes and green complexes on steroids. Tiger Woods said that about “half (of a player's) putts were double-breaking” back in 2009.
As a result, the course underwent renovation in 2012, softening the green contours and moving cart paths around so a few fairways could be widened. It should help the players a bit, but for a course the Tour sees only once every few years, I don’t think it will have much of an impact on the scoring. Putts will be fresh reads, mainly, and that almost always reduces the number of actual made putts. Slocum won with -9 in 2009 on the par-71 layout in difficult conditions (wind, rain and long rough), so with a forecast of clear skies, light winds and more forgiving rough, I’d expect the scoring to be a little lower. Give me some guys who make birdies.
Now to the strategy discussion… if you're a season-long One and Doner, these are the four weeks (actually five - there's an off week after the Deutsche Bank) you've held out certain players for. But which order to you play them? Several players: Tiger (I doubt too many people have him available still), Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson, Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy have each had success in multiple events. If you have a couple of them available, odds are you have them penciled in for a certain event. But that still leaves a couple of weeks of debate, and with the way these playoffs typically shake out -- the unknown playing well (Slocum) to the good player who has underperformed all year (Nick Watney in 2012) -- there are a lot of variables. Plus, are you protecting a lead or trying to make a surge up the standings, i.e. the 'need a solid top-15 guy' or 'need to catch lightning in a bottle'? I'm dividing the 10-Fer into three categories this week that will hopefully cover all the bases.
Two potential selections aren't in the field this week: Stricker (his choice, resting that hamstring) and Zach Johnson, who is attending his brother's wedding.
Full tee times are here. Onto the picks:
Players ranked 90 to 125 in FEC standings --> -->
These guys need to play well to get to the next playoff event (only the top 100 advance), potential 'lightning in a bottle' picks.
10. Martin Kaymer. The German (ranked No. 101 in FEC points) has made 65% of his season's earnings in his last six events, helped by nice finishes in the Nelson (T5) and WGC Bridgestone (T9). He has no history in the FEC Playoffs, but is generally considered a good player on tough courses. There are some similarities between Liberty National and Whistling Straights -- tough fairways and odd green complexes, forced carries and crosswinds coming off the water -- that indicate he should be comfortable this week. Has made seven consecutive cuts.
9. Morgan Hoffman. The rookie from Oklahoma State has been stellar at times this season, and has played his best golf in the second half of the season. That includes his recent run of six consecutive made cuts that features three top-15's. I like him this week because he's ranked 32nd in the All-Around, 9th in Par Breakers and 2nd in Par-4 Par Breakers categories, and he's had top-10's on difficult courses (Congressional, TPC Four Seasons). He sits 109th in FEC points.
8. John Senden. If ever there's a guy who could light it up for a few weeks who is flying way under the radar, it's Senden (No. 103). He has underperformed most of the year, save two decent finishes this summer: a T15 at the US Open and a T29 last week at the Wyndham, where he bookended rounds of 66 and 68. Senden usually ranks near the top of the Tour in ball striking categories, but this year his driving accuracy has dropped into the 100s and his GIR% is only 48th. He's had at least one top-12 finish in the Playoffs every year since 2009 and could be rounding into form.
Players ranked 40 to 89 --> --> -->
These guys need to play well to move into the top 70 or top 30 to qualify for future FEC Playoff events.
7. Ryan Moore. Did you know he hit 40 consecutive fairways at one point this season? That's a recipe for success in the FEC Playoffs, and I nominate RM as the 'Heath Slocumesque Candidate' for 2013. He has a compelling history in FEC events: three top-10's in 2012, one in 2011 and a T3 in 2010. His pattern the last three years is that he catches a top-10 finish every five to seven events, and his last top 10 was a T7 at Travelers -- five events ago. A great longshot play this week.
6. Ernie Els. Finished T2 at Liberty National in 2009 and a similar finish this year should propel him into the top 30 in FEC points (currently 80th). Ernie has proven he can win on tough layouts in any condition, and with the greens leveled out it should play in his favor. After adding the Wyndham to his calendar on Monday last week, he closed with a 65 to sneak into the top 20. A decent selection if you're protecting a lead in your One and Done season -- he should be a safe pick.
5. Rory McIlroy. I imagine that many of you have him available still, mainly because he's provided very little reason to use him to this point. He's 47th in FEC points, mainly on the back of T8 finishes at The PLAYERS and in his last event, the PGA Championship. In 2012, Rory had a run of futility in the middle of the year -- three missed cuts in four events, followed by a T60 -- before he broke out with a T5 and then winning three times in four events, including the PGA and two playoff events. In his last three events, he's gone MC (British Open), T27 (Bridgestone) and T8 (PGA). The potential is there this week.
Players ranked 1 to 39 --> --> --> -->
Creme of the crop category. I do not list Tiger here because he is the default No. 1 pick any of these weeks. It's not a major, so play him with confidence… who would've thought those words would ever be uttered.
4. Henrik Stenson. The guy playing better than everyone over the last six weeks who can't seem to get one over the finish line. His worst finish in his last four worldwide events is a T3. Ranks 6th in driving accuracy and 2nd in GIR%, a combo to have a lot of high finishes. That might end this week, but I don't foresee the fall being too precipitous. He's a quirky guy who fits a quirky layout, and he hasn't missed a cut since the Wells Fargo (which just so happened to be the week I used him… sigh).
3. Keegan Bradley. I secretly thought he'd win the PGA two weeks ago, but it took him a couple of rounds to tune up his game before he started to light it up. I don't think it will take the New England native much time to warm up in front of the New York crowds this week. Has quietly posted seven top-10's this year and four top-20's in his last five events.
2. Bill Haas. Just an ATM machine this season. Has been nails most of the year with nine top-10's (1st) and 14 total top-25's. Oh, and he's been pretty decent in the playoffs before (see: 2009, 2011).
1. Jason Dufner. His last two events are pretty, pretty good (as Larry David would say): T4 at Bridgestone and WIN at the PGA, his first major. After that display at Oak Hill -- splitting fairways and knocking down tough flags -- no one should be selected ahead of him. He doesn't seem like the type of guy who is going to be too phased by his major win.
Others I like, but I doubt you still have available: Jason Day, Adam Scott, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson. Maybe some of you have these guys still, and if you do and are still in contention... well played, fantasy golf warrior, well played.
Player to avoid: Ian Poulter. He finished T9 here in 2009, so some might have their sights set on him. But on a course at which the grounds for complaining are already laid, this one reeks of Poulter going off on something. He finished 3rd at The Open, but a lackluster 61st at the PGA. I don't see much reason for motivation for him this week as he gets set for some rest, the Silly Season and easy paydays overseas.
One other note: if you want to get into some deep analysis on the FEC Playoffs like many of us do, be sure to check out the FEC Playoffs primer Kindle e-book by friend of golfmanna, Josh Culp, over at Future of Fantasy. I also recommend you follow him on Twitter if you dig that kind of thing.
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Photo: USA Today Sports Images