Henny Ray Abrams, AP Photos
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy playing in the same group. Bethpage Black, a notoriously tough track on Long Island made even more famous by the two U.S. Opens it has hosted in the last decade.
As the playoffs for the FedEx Cup get under way Thursday at The Barclays, the buzz is bigger than usual.
"Playing here at Bethpage Black is incredible," said Woods, who won his second U.S. Open title on this public course in 2002. "Two U.S. Opens here, and this is all the golf course you want. It's a great venue, great fans, and just a great environment to compete at. You know, it's basically like a U.S. Open."
It doesn't look much different from three years ago, except that only a few hundred fans were at the far end of the course watching the pro-am on Wednesday. And the sun was shining, a change from the rain that interrupted the U.S. Open in 2002 and forced a Monday finish in 2009.
The course also is playing to a par 71, with the seventh hole returned to a par 5.
The Barclays is the first of four tournaments in the playoffs, when the field (125 players qualified for the opening event) gets whittled down each week until only 30 reach the Tour Championship, and the winner walks away with a $10 million bonus.
Even so, this one has a different feel.
Part of that is because of the golf course.
"The whole place is just big," said Zach Johnson, who will join Woods and McIlroy as the middle man of the top three players from the FedEx Cup standings. "I mean, the property is big. Everything about it is just big. Elevated tee shots, uphill tee shots. I think it's great. It's right out in front of you. It's not hidden. There's certain holes you've just got to get off with a great shot, starting at the tee box through the green. And that's what separates a championship course from an OK course.
"I think this does it."
And part of that is the players, particularly Woods and McIlroy.
Jason Dufner, the No. 2 player, decided not to play the opening event to keep fresh for a busy stretch of five tournaments in six weeks, concluding with the Ryder Cup on Sept. 28-30 at Medinah.
Woods is No. 1 in the standings for the fourth time in six years of this competition. McIlroy is No. 3, and Johnson moves into that group at No. 4. He once described himself as a normal guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when he won the 2007 Masters. He might feel even more overlooked on Thursday.
"I'm going to relish the opportunity because I think they're two of the best players that I play with, certainly two of the better players that are playing right now in the world," Johnson said. "I guess if I wasn't playing with them and I was working out or in my hotel, I'd probably be watching them on TV, so now I've got a firsthand watch. I know the crowd will be pushing them quite heavily, and it'll be fun."
McIlroy is No. 1 in the world ranking after winning the PGA Championship two weeks ago at Kiawah Island.
It's not so much that he won his second major at a slightly younger age when Woods won two majors, but it was the way McIlroy won them — both by eight shots. Only three other majors have been won by more than eight shots since 1976, all of them by Woods.
If it's not a rivalry already, it's taking root.
They were on opposite ends of the course during the pro-am — Woods on the first tee for the shotgun start, McIlroy starting at No. 10. They were much closer when it was time for their interviews. Because everyone started at the same time Wednesday morning, McIlroy was three questions into his news conference when he noticed Woods waiting at the back of the room.
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