BY DOUG FERGUSON
Ten days ago, Rory McIlroy wasn’t sure if he was going to play the rest of the year.
A week off made him feel good enough that a nagging rib injury can be managed well enough for him to compete in the FedEx Cup playoffs. And with just over a month before he shuts it down for the year, McIlroy wants to do more than just play.
“I think the real thing for me was I want to win,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “I want to win at least once before the end of the year. I haven’t not won a tournament since the 2008 season, which was my real rookie season on the European Tour.”
Even in 2013, when he struggled with an equipment change, McIlroy won the Australian Open by one shot over Adam Scott and headed into the offseason feeling better about his game. He wound up winning two majors the following year.
“I’d like to have that feeling again before taking that time off at the end of this year and getting myself right for 2018,” he said.
The majors are over, though McIlroy faces a field that in some respects is tougher than the PGA Championship.
The Northern Trust, which starts Thursday at Glen Oaks on Long Island, features the top 120 players available based on their performance this season on the toughest circuit in golf. There are no aging champions, amateur qualifiers or club professionals.
There is no Masters champion, either, as Sergio Garcia again is taking off the first playoff event.
Hideki Matsuyama enters the FedEx Cup playoffs as the fifth player in the last five years to be the No. 1 seed. The points count four times as much for the next three playoff events until the reset for the Tour Championship at East Lake.
The objective is to be among the top five seeds going into the finale, where those players only have to win the Tour Championship to capture the $10 million bonus.
There remains plenty on the line beyond the cash for players who haven’t won majors this year — Matsuyama and Dustin Johnson — and even those who have.
PGA champion Justin Thomas and British Open winner Jordan Spieth are regarded the front-runners to be voted PGA Tour player of the year. Thomas has one more victory and some impressive rounds (his 59 at the Sony Open), while Spieth has been more consistent.
“You’re the MVP of the league,” Spieth said, who won the award in 2015 when he won five times, including two majors and the FedEx Cup. “When you put it that way, it’s something that you want really badly and you want to be considered the best player. … So it’s a fight, and it’s something that is keeping me going and grinding at the end of a really good season.”
Spieth looked to be a shoo-in for the award in 2015 when he came as close as anyone to the calendar Grand Slam. Jason Day began to emerge late in the year and looked like a viable candidate until Spieth won the Tour Championship.
Thomas is still coming to grasp with his victory in the PGA Championship for his first major. He hasn’t much time to celebrate, mainly because he had The Northern Trust after one week off. Thomas said he went to practice on Thursday in steamy conditions and wasn’t into it, so he headed to the gym.
He headed for Long Island on Friday and played Shinnecock Hills (U.S. Open site next year) and Liberty National (Presidents Cup next month) to get back into it.
The FedEx Cup is important because it’s the next big trophy he can claim, and that would lead to player of the year.
“If you ask someone, ‘Would you rather win a major or a FedEx Cup,’ they are both life-changers,” he said. “They are both something that a lot of people won’t do in their career — a lot of great players won’t do. Now that I’ve done one, I hope to do the other at least once in my career.”
Three of the top six players in the world — Spieth, McIlroy and Henrik Stenson — have won the FedEx Cup. Stenson had a chance to be the first to go back-to-back until he ran into Spieth and his propensity to hole putts across the green.
McIlroy now has that opportunity, even though he starts the playoffs at No. 44 because of the stop-and-start nature of his season. Then again, he is one of only two players in the 10-year history of the FedEx Cup to win after starting the playoffs out of the top 20. He was No. 36 last year.
“I think we’ve seen what can happen in these playoffs, and how quickly you can shoot up the rankings with a good week or a win,” he said. “I’m here, and I know I’ve done it before, and hopefully I can give myself a chance to do it again.”
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