The volatility of the game of golf can be shocking at times, and it's on full display as the 2013 FedEx Cup playoffs begin Thursday with The Barclays.
Just when it looked as though Tiger Woods was on his way to major No. 15, when Phil Mickelson seemed unstoppable after capturing the Claret Jug and when Rory McIlroy appeared to be imploding, everything turned on its head in a week's time.
Woods and Mickelson fell apart at the PGA Championship, finishing tied for 40th and tied for 72nd, respectively. If not for a triple bogey on the second hole of the final round, McIlroy might have defended the Wanamaker Trophy even more valiantly.
Instead, McIlroy settled for a tie for eighth—his first (and only) top 10 in a major season.
The Northern Irishman has slipped from first to third in the world since a stupendous 2012 in which he won both major tour money lists. Now, he may be in better form than both Woods and Mickelson entering the PGA Tour's postseason.
Below are some predictions for how Woods, Mickelson and McIlroy—the planet's highest-ranked golfers—will fare at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J.
Note: Statistics and information are courtesy of PGATour.com.
As off as the world No. 1 was at Oak Hill, he has still won five of the 12 tournaments in which he's teed it up this year. Excluding majors, Woods has won five of nine tournaments.
But only one of those victories—The Players Championship—came at a venue where he hadn't won multiple times in the past.
That's an extraordinary bit of nitpicking, and it is in no way meant to disrespect Woods' phenomenal accomplishments, season or career. In fact, it actually enhances his case to play The Barclays well.
The tournament was held at Liberty National one before (in 2009), and Woods finished in a tie for second then. It took a 21-foot birdie putt by relatively unheralded Heath Slocum on the 72nd hole to stave off Woods, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Steve Stricker.
A relatively short missed putt on the last green doomed Woods, but that part of his game has not been a concern outside of majors in 2013. Woods leads the tour in total putting, not to mention FedEx Cup points, scoring average and all-around ranking.
Woods' issues in majors don't seem to be affecting him at other tournaments. Even though this is a high-stakes event, look for Woods to come refreshed from a week off and contend for the trophy.
Prediction: (-5); Top-five finish
It usually takes the heat of competition the week before a major championship for Mickelson to get on his A-game. The FedEx Cup tournaments aren't considered to be on the same level as majors, but Lefty will likely take a tournament to adapt to the intensity.
Following his victories at the Scottish Open and the Open Championship, Mickelson played decently at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, which Woods dominated.
Unfortunately, a third-round 78 has caused some to question Mickelson's game once again, even after he played some of the best golf of his career across the pond just a month ago.
Mickelson does have the advantage of having a phenomenal short game to bail him out and the wizardry to escape from the kinds of tough lies Liberty National presents around the greens with lush rough.
At this venue in 2009, Mickelson finished in a tie for 52nd. But based on the current state of his game, that might not be indicative of his performance this time around.
The wind can be a huge factor, as this course sits on the shoreline of New York Bay. This course also contains many elements of links golf, which Mickelson finally figured out over the past three years, beginning notably with his tie for third at the Open Championship in 2011.
Mickelson won't contend too prominently, but he will fare far better this time around due to the evolution of his game and how it fits with this course.
Prediction: (E); Top-20 finish
Could the 24-year-old wunderkind possibly pull off something remotely reminiscent of how he closed last season, when a stretch of 10 tournaments resulted in four wins, a second, a third and two other top 10s?
It's unlikely, as McIlroy has only recorded back-to-back top 10s once this year.
Having said that, get ready for this mind-blowing—albeit possibly purely coincidental—fact: Defending Barclays champion Nick Watney was ranked 49th in the FedEx Cup point standings before soaring all the way to the top in his triumph at Bethpage Black.
McIlroy is 49th in points at the moment. He's also brimming with confidence after an encouraging final round at the PGA, per IrishCentral.com's Cathal Dervan:
I played the best golf of the week today. I hit some really good drives and really good iron shots. Didn’t quite putt as well as I did the first three days, but really, really happy with my game going into the next few weeks.
It’s a very big step in the right direction. I saw a lot of great signs out there today. Hopefully I can just bring that through to the next few weeks and have a strong finish to the season.
For a world-class player who has been candid about his trials and tribulations—and has even felt "lost" at times this year—this sounds like a totally different McIlroy.
It would not be surprising to see McIlroy break out of his relative funk, and he showed signs at the PGA that he was beginning to do just that.
As long as his iron play remains strong and he can hole a couple of putts at the difficult Liberty National, he will be in contention. He may not win, but he'll be very close.
Prediction: (-6) overall; Third-place finish
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