Playoffs heat up POY, Ryder Cup race

Until the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs in 2007, the PGA Tour season really ended with the PGA Championship. There were several good tournaments that came after the last major of the year, but by September even the most fervent golf fan was probably looking ahead to football season.

Now in its sixth season, the sometimes confusing four-tournament playoff format continues to evolve. And while it still has its detractors, the playoffs are probably around to stay. The powers that be in the game have made these events matter beyond the $32 million in total purses, $35 million in the bonus pool -- including $10 million to the winner.

If you think it's just all about the money and a scheme to hold the attention of the best players in the world with outsized purses, ask the guys vying for Davis Love III's four U.S. Ryder Cup picks. Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Bo Van Pelt are all trying to prove their worth to the team that will face the Europeans at Medinah in late September.

These tournaments are the closest thing these millionaires will get to their old college tournament qualifiers.

Ask Bill Haas how important the playoffs were to his chances last year of making the U.S. Presidents Cup team. The 30-year-old Wake Forest grad was an easy captain's pick for Fred Couples after he won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup.

The PGA Tour Player of the Year likely will be determined in the playoffs. Two of the favorites for the prestigious award, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, will be paired together in the first two rounds of the playoffs this week at the Barclays at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y.

McIlroy, who is making his second appearance in the playoffs, is third in the FedEx Cup standings, a couple spots behind the leader Woods, who is closely followed by Jason Dufner. Taking the playoffs would cement McIlroy's grasp on player of the year. And after failing to make the playoffs last year, Tiger could make a strong claim for POY with a third FedEx Cup championship.

But first McIlroy, Tiger and 121 other players will have to brave the very difficult Bethpage Black course that has previously hosted U.S. Opens in 2002 and 2009. Only the top 100 in the standings at the end of the week will advance to the second event in the series next week at the Deutsche Bank Championship, outside of Boston. Last year no one who started the playoffs outside the top 100 made it to the finale at the Tour Championship.

In 2011, Haas was the closest thing the playoffs have had to a Cinderella story when he came from 15th on the points list at the start of the mini-season to win the FedEx Cup. Before Haas, who had dropped to 25th in the standings by the Tour Championship, Vijay Singh had held the lowest ranking for a winner when he started the playoffs in '08 in the seventh position. Both times that Woods has won the cup in '07 and '09, he's started the series first in the standings.

In 2011, only seven players who started the playoffs inside the top 30 failed to make it to East Lake. In that group were Spencer Levin and Tommy Gainey, who could have both earned their first trips to the Masters.

With the completion of the Wyndham Championship, the field is set for the Barclays. Sergio Garcia, who didn't make it to the Tour Championship in 2011, is in a much better position to make it to Atlanta this year after winning the Wyndham Championship on Monday. At 33rd in the FedEx Cup standings, the Spaniard is assured of at least making the 70-man field at the BMW Championship.

Heath Slocum, who began his week in Greensboro at 128th in the standings, narrowly advanced to the Barclays at No. 124 with a tie for 31st. In 2009, the former University of South Alabama star was a surprise winner at the Barclays when it was held at Liberty National in Jersey City, N.J. Like this year, he went into that Barclays 124th in the rankings.

Over the next month, we'll witness a war of attrition, as the fields get smaller by the week. Along the way there will be some heartbreaks and hopefully a few Cinderella stories. Right now it wouldn't be a bad bet to pick either Tiger or McIlroy to walk away with the $10 million at the end of the Tour Championship. For Tiger, these playoffs won't fill the void left by a fourth straight winless year in the majors, but they could help him reassert his dominance in the game and push him toward the 2013 Masters.

With all the Ryder Cup implications and the big stars headlining the events, this could be the most exciting FedEx Cup playoffs in the short history of the series. I can't wait to get on the tee box with Tiger and Rory on Thursday at Bethpage.