It started with an earthquake and ended in a hurricane, but the Barclays—the first round of the FedEx Cup playoffs—did not produce a seismic shift in the golf landscape or suffer from a storm surge of weather-related weirdness. In the end the Barclays was merely a very intriguing tournament at a fun new venue, Plainfield Country Club in Edison, N.J.
With his rock-solid victory Dustin Johnson reaffirmed his standing as one of the game's monster talents. Meanwhile, five years into this ongoing FedEx Cup experiment, it has become increasingly clear that the real drama is at the bottom of the points list, not the top.
When the final 18 holes of the Barclays was scrubbed due to incoming Hurricane Irene, last Saturday's final round turned into a nerve-jangling shootout that would determine not only the winner but also which players would move on to this week's Deutsche Bank Championship. "Today was Sunday," Johnson said on Saturday. "It was do or die."
This was felt most acutely by the bubble boys in the 123-man field, as only the top 100 in the FedEx Cup standings at the end of play would have to worry about the travel hassles of getting to the TPC Boston. The denouement could be jarring. Retief Goosen came into Plainfield Country Club 101st in the standings. After a closing five-over-par 76—tying Saturday's worst score—the two-time U.S. Open champ signed his card and walked briskly into the off-season.
Asked about his dispiriting finish, he never broke stride. "Nothing to say—I'm done," Goosen mumbled, and then he was gone.
There were some happier endings, as eight men outside the top 100 played their way back in. Ernie Els began the Barclays 118th in points, and with opening rounds of 68--69 he remained imperiled. Beginning Saturday on the 10th tee, he tore off three straight birdies to move comfortably inside the top 100 on the ever-changing, all-important projected points list. Then Els three-putted the 16th hole from 3½ feet for a double bogey. He is a Hall of Famer with tens of millions of dollars in the bank, but at 41 Els is not quite ready to be a ceremonial golfer. Of the double bogey he said, "I can't tell you how it felt walking off that green. It's as if your whole world falls apart." Els rallied to play the remaining 11 holes in two under, shooting a 67. As a prehurricane precaution, all of Plainfield's on-course leader boards were removed before Saturday's round, so Els had no idea where he stood at round's end. After signing his scorecard, Els was informed that he was, at that exact moment, a projected 96th in points. "I thought I needed a 65 or 66 to be safe," he said. "So of course I shoot a 67 and now I'm hanging on." Reluctantly, Els copped to being invigorated by the urgency the FedEx Cup brings to what can seem like an endless season. "Maybe that's what I need in my game," he said. "I have to score, otherwise I won't move on. In a sadistic way, it's fun." As it turned out, Els wound up 99th in the standings.
A lot of attention is lavished on the Cup's ostentatious $10 million winner's bonus, but frankly, it's a little hard to care about which multimillionaire is going to scoop up more Bugatti money. What makes the FedEx Cup compelling is a meritocratic setup that offers career advancement for the Tour's middle class. The wonderfully named Will McGirt is quickly becoming the poster boy for this FedEx Cup. The 32-year-old North Carolina native went to tiny Wofford College, in Spartanburg, S.C., and has been fighting to make a living ever since. He finally reached the big leagues this year, but in his first 25 starts McGirt missed the cut in 13 and finished better than 25th only twice. Proving what a great country this is, he still had a chance to qualify for the playoffs heading into the Wyndham Championship two weeks ago. During a stressful final round there, he eked out 10 straight pars to nail down the 125th spot in the standings and punch his ticket to Plainfield. Playing his 53rd hole last week, he was projected at 101st, not that he knew it until his wife offered the information from the rope line. From 163 yards out McGirt stiffed a seven-iron to six feet and poured in the putt. That birdie ultimately pushed him to 96th and kept him alive for at least one more week. Is he ready to keep this unlikely run going? "Heck yeah, it's the playoffs!" McGirt said. "There's still a chance!"
Of course, the cream tends to rise, and the Barclays was dominated by familiar faces Matt Kuchar, the defending champ, and Johnson, who was fifth in last year's playoffs.
Kuchar was on the Plainfield range on Aug. 23 when the ground starting moving, the effects of an earthquake in central Virginia that measureed 5.8 on the Richter Scale. That was the first signal that this would not be an ordinary week. As Irene slowly made her way up the coast, the status of the tournament was day-by-day. The uncertainty of how many rounds would be played added an extra urgency to the proceedings. After an opening 63—which was interrupted by a rain delay—Kuchar said, "Yeah, right now, who knows what's going to happen with the completion of this tournament, so you kind of want to keep going as low as you can as quickly as you can."
That was easy to do on a softened playing field. Plainfield is a graceful Donald Ross layout that dates to 1921, but at 7,125 yards it is laughably short for the modern game. The überathletic 6'4" Johnson is the archetype of the new-school power player that classic tracks like Plainfield simply can't contain. In addition to easily reaching the par-5s, Johnson had three par-4s that he could drive, too. During the second round he tore apart the front nine to the tune of 29, and his 63 brought him within a stroke of Kuchar's lead. In this, the year of Rory and Keegan, it's easy to forget that Dustin, 27, may have more upside than any other player on the planet. Spotty putting had held him back all season. In March he was asked about the problem. "I haven't really worked on it very much," he said.