By their very design, overstuffed with money and condensed into four events, the FedEx Cup playoffs don’t necessarily reward the PGA Tour’s best player over the course of a season.
Sometimes, as Billy Horschel may prove Sunday, it’s about finding the keys to golf’s elusive kingdom at just the right time and turning it into an eight-figure payday.
Other times, the sheer inevitability of supremacy wins out.
That’s where Rory McIlroy factors in as the Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup playoffs and another PGA Tour season culminate at East Lake Golf Club where McIlroy and Horschel share the lead with 18 holes remaining.
If either of them wins Sunday – Jim Furyk is lurking two behind while Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Justin Rose are three back – he will pocket a cool $11.4 million.
For Horschel, it would be a career defining achievement.
For McIlroy, who won the British Open, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship in consecutive starts earlier this summer, it would be a final permanent stamp on a season that would go from special to spectacular.
“I feel like I’ve had my best year to date and I feel I’ve had the best year of anyone on Tour, and I’ve come here with the ultimate goal of trying to cap it off and trying to put an exclamation point on it or the icing on the cake or whatever you want to call it,” McIlroy said after a late eagle earned him a share of the lead with Horschel.
McIlroy has reached the point in his career where money, even $11.4 million, isn’t what pushes him. It never has, McIlroy said.
His eyes widened as an 18-year old after he won his first six-figure paycheck, but he’s played for silver more than green. He can still be impressed, however.
“It’s always nice… you draw some money out of the ATM and you’ve won the week before, and you check your balance and it’s nice, yeah,” McIlroy said, flashing an almost embarrassed smile.
This PGA Tour season has been defined by the concurrent story lines of McIlroy’s return to being the most magnificent player in the game and the lost seasons of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Those lines crossed at East Lake, though neither Woods nor Mickelson was in the 29-player field when McIlroy was asked – again – about the changing heirarchy in professional golf where he is the new CEO.
McIlroy is refreshingly open, which is a big part of why he’s so popular. Where Woods built walls around himself, McIlroy has not.
When some outlets sensationalized McIlroy’s comments about Woods and Mickelson being on the final holes of their careers, he handled the media manufactured controversy beautifully.
“I answered a question honestly and openly and, hey, it’s just one person’s opinion,” McIlroy said, adding that he’s said “far worse” to Woods in person.
Rory is right – Woods and Mickelson are getting toward the end of their PGA Tour careers. He didn’t say they were finished. Just look at this how this season has unfolded. Rory can rest his case.
Should McIlroy win on Sunday (a Tour Championship victory for him would clinch the FedEx Cup too), it will turn a special season into a spectacular one. He doesn’t always win, but no one – no one – plays golf like him these days.
“This summer he’s made his presence known,” Rickie Fowler said.
Like a freight train coming through the front door.
It’s possible Horschel beats him. Since missing the cut in the first playoff event, Horschel has posted 11 straight sub-70 scores, finished tied for second at the Deutsche Bank Championship before winning the BMW Championship last week. He doesn’t scare.
Should Horschel win, it will culminate a classic playoff run. Horschel is not exactly Cinderella in primary colors, but he’s a high-energy opportunist who had U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson asking Horschel why he didn’t play like this sooner?
“I’m sure Tom Watson is kicking himself at the moment,” McIlroy said, “but that’s another story.”
Horschel won’t be at the Ryder Cup in two weeks. He’ll be home with his wife and their new baby, due any day now. McIlroy will be in Scotland playing for favored Europe.
Before that, there’s one more day at East Lake and all the possibilities it brings.