The Northern Trust is the first leg of the three-event FedExCup Playoffs, and will feature the top-125 players in the points standings following last week’s regular season finale in Greensboro (Wyndham Championship).
With the PGA Tour’s move from four to three playoffs events (bye, bye Boston), the stakes this year will be even higher, as only 70 players will advance to next week’s BMW Championship in Medinah, Illinois.
Further heightening the drama, the total playoff bonus pool was increased by $15 million, to $60 million, with the FedEx Cup champion earning a whopping $15 million, up from $10 million in previous years.
With the table set somewhat (head to the Primer for more), let’s look at some of the top storylines to follow this week in New Jersey.
1. Tiger Back In Action
Tiger Woods will be making his first PGA Tour appearance since missing the cut at last month’s Open Championship.
Tiger captivated the sports world with an unforgettable performance in winning The Masters in April, capturing his first major championship in 11 years, but his performance has been spotty since.
For starters, he has barely played. Since that milestone win, Tiger has made just four starts, with two missed cuts in majors among them. Most concerning is that he seems to be struggling with his health again, but still, he should be at least somewhat well-rested heading into the playoffs.
A year ago, he did not perform well in this event (T40), but was able to get it together and win the Tour Championship and a second-place finish in the standings. Right now, Tiger sits at No. 28, which makes him a lock for the BMW Championship, but if he disappoints, he risks being unable to defend at East Lake.
2. King Koepka Enters Hot
The FedExCup Playoffs open up appropriately with world No. 1, Brooks Koepka, also atop the FedExCup Standings. The reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year (with a back-to-back award basically guaranteed to be on the way) had another banner year, owning the major season with four top-4 finishes, including two runner-ups, and a victory at the PGA Championship, his second consecutive year winning that event.
Even scarier for the field: Koepka is coming off a win… at a NON-major! The 29-year-old won his last start at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. He finished T8 in this event a year ago, although, his only experience at Liberty National came during the 2017 Presidents Cup matches, where he performed well.
3. DeChambeau Defends
In this event last year, Bryson DeChambeau had come in cold, but walloped the field at Ridgewood Country Club en route to a four-stroke victory, which he then transmuted into a win the following week in Boston.
His Northern Trust win was the second of a three-win PGA Tour season.
In his 2019 follow-up, it has been a little bit of a dropoff. DeChambeau won his first start of the season back in November, but has been inconsistent since. He struggled badly from April to June, but seemed to get back on track with a T8-T2 stretch before missing the cut at The Open and then finishing T48 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. He is not in great form, but the same was said a year ago.
4. Rose Defends FedExCup
Bryson DeChambeau might be the event’s defending champion, but Justin Rose is the FedExCup defending champion, which brings a large responsibility on its own.
Rose is not having the season he did a year ago, where 11 top-10 finishes included two wins and three runner-ups, but he did win the Farmers Insurance Open in January and played in the final pairing at the U.S. Open before finishing T3.
His weekend rounds have been questionable over the season, but he clearly knows how to play these events, finishing inside the top 10 in seven of eight playoff events over the past two seasons. That missed top-10, however, was a missed cut at last year’s The Northern Trust.
5. Rory Rebound?
The season of Rory McIlroy has been characterized by prodigious ups and downs. The world No. 3 has been ridiculously consistent from a pure-stat perspective, with a ridiculous 12 top-10s in 16 PGA Tour starts, with two victories, including a defining win at THE PLAYERS Championship.
However, as amazing as he has been at times, Rory was largely irrelevant during the major season, and shockingly missed the cut at The Open Championship, which was being played in his native Northern Ireland. It was an emotional disappointment. Then he squandered the 54-hole co-lead at the following week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
A former FedExCup Champion, Rory will be among the most watched and feared players in the field, but it could be fair to wonder where his mental game is.
He has little history with this event at this course, skipping the tournament last year and finishing T34 the year prior.
6. FedExCup Bubble
With the FedExCup Playoffs being shortened from four events to three this year, The Northern Trust features an enormous cut-line of 55 players.
Only the top 70 in the standings after this week will move on to the BMW Championship. That means those near the bottom of the standings need an especially tremendous week, but those on the bubble will be sweating it out soon.
Notable names on or below the bubble include Sergio Garcia (No. 65), Jordan Spieth (No. 69), Bubba Watson (No. 71), Joaquin Niemann (No. 74), Henrik Stenson (No. 85), and Branden Grace (No. 88).
It would not be surprising to see a record amount of movement on the standings cut line this year.
7. Lowry Does NOT Withdraw (Yet)
Has the celebration finally come to an end? Shane Lowry had the week of his life when he dominated The Open Championship last month to the tune of a six-stroke victory, his first career major win.
It greatly increased the profile of the 32-year-old Irishman, who has seen his world ranking climb from No. 75 at the start of the year to his current position of No. 18.
He was scheduled to play both of the events following The Open, but played in neither, as a number of photos circulated on social media of Lowry jubilantly celebrating in Ireland with the Claret Jug.
It appears to be back to work for Lowry now, though, as it seems unlikely that he will withdraw from such a high-profile event, especially considering the increased stakes. Also, at No. 20 in the current standings, he is not yet a lock for East Lake.