As the PGA Tour season heads towards its climax at the Tour Championship in Atlanta next week, it will do so without a contribution from the man expected to provide most of the drama and excitement in the chase for the FedEx Cup, as he did last year.
Barring the kind of miracle that has conspicuously been missing from his play this season, Rory McIlroy, happy recipient of FedEx’s $10 million cheque in 2016, will not be in Atlanta. He will be home, nursing his battered body and his battered pride, thinking about next year.
“It’s my tenth year out here. I’ve been through the ups, I’ve been through the downs. I know it all sort of evens out in the end,’’ he said after the second round of the BMW Championship in Chicago on Friday. If he sounded weary then it’s hardly any wonder.
He has 36 holes left to play, starting on 8.55am on Saturday. Tied 50th (out of 70) after two rounds, the best he can hope for is a top-20 finish.
The prize money will be a mighty sum in layman’s terms but in McIlroy’s world it will barely register as loose change. In any case, these days the Irishman doesn’t play for money ($300m in recently signed sponsorship deals has seen to that), he plays for glory and for excitement.
Over the next two days, there will be very little of that for Irishman at least. It will fall to others to provide the excitement in the closing stretch of the BMW Championship and for one player to grab the glory for himself.
The excitement is guaranteed given a halfway leaderboard that sparkles like a sackful of diamonds. Jason Day. Rickie Fowler. Phil Mickelson. Jordan Spieth.
On a Conway Farms golf course that doesn’t hold much in the way of fear for the best players in the game, all four are well within reach of the tournament leader Marc Leishman, who led by three shots at the halfway stage.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 15, 2017
Leishman, currently the 15/8 fav – is hardly a slouch – an opening round 62 that, frankly, could have been even lower, followed by a 64 testified to that – but he will need to keep the brilliance level at Spinal Tap ‘11’ if he wants to hold off the chasers.
Even then, he and his backers have every right to be fearful. Day in particular looks hungry for victory, spurred on no doubt by the presence of a new caddy on the bag after dispensing with his long-term caddy Col Swatton.
It’s a scene familiar to those of us who follow professional golf closely – the boss wants to impress the newly hired hand.
Day has certainly been impressive so far. As has Rickie Fowler, whose dominance over Conway Farms’ closing stretch of holes has been nothing short of ridiculous – over the opening two rounds he was 11-under playing holes 12 to 17.
Both players have had relatively disappointing seasons measuring against their own expectations, and will be out to change that over the next two days. A win on Sunday will elevate them into prime contention when the Tour Championship, and FedEx Cup bonus, rolls around next week.
Spieth, who is 16/1, currently ranked no1 in the FedEx Cup points rankings, was curiously muted in Friday’s second round after an opening 65. But if this year has taught us anything about the young American it is that in a golfing sense he is seldom muted for long. Like Day and Fowler, he will give Leishman all the challenge he might want in the next 48 hours.
Yet if those names are the most eye-catching to most observers, those will look more for value than for star-power will cast an eye on Francesco Molinari. Quietly, the sweet-swinging Italian has had a wonderful season on the PGA Tour.
He is yet to win but once again this week he has fulfilled the first criteria for any potential winner – he has put himself in contention.
Molinari 50/1 was tied fifth on nine-under par after 36 holes, one shot behind another name that might also escape the attention of many. If you are one of those who have yet to register the name Patrick Cantley, take note now.
The American was long tipped as the next great thing – no mean achievement given that he is a contemporary of Spieth and Justin Thomas – but injury blighted the start of his professional career. No more. He is fit and, more to the point, he looks like someone on course to fulfill every ounce of his potential. That could happen this weekend. If not, it will happen before too long.