Rory McIlroy knew the rules going into last year's FedEx Cup playoffs, which didn't make it any easier to digest.
He won the Deutsche Bank Championship after a duel with Louis Oosthuizen. The next week at Crooked Stick, he blew away a powerful leaderboard that featured Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott to win the BMW Championship. He closed out his great run with a tie for 10th at the Tour Championship.
All that got him was second place in the FedEx Cup (along with a $3 million bonus).
"Maybe it will be the other way around this year," he said Wednesday at The Barclays, the first of four FedEx Cup playoff events.
McIlroy has no complaints about this postseason bonanza on the PGA Tour. The objective is to be among the top 30 players who reach the final event at East Lake for the Tour Championship, preferably in the top five to have a guaranteed shot at the $10 million.
A year ago, McIlroy was the No. 1 seed at East Lake by nearly double the amount of points over Tiger Woods. That wasn't enough to win the FedEx Cup, however, because the points are reset for the final event to give everyone a chance at the $10 million prize and inject some excitement.
This year, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland is No. 48 in the standings, not even guaranteed getting to the third playoff event outside Chicago.
He doesn't seem terribly worried, despite having such a poor year.
"I feel like my game is in good shape," McIlroy said. "I'm coming off a nice weekend at the PGA Championship — that was probably the worst I could have finished. I feel like I'm in a good place. I'm just playing golf and focusing on my targets. I've still got events this year — and four big ones, the playoffs. And I'm really looking forward to the last four months."
The running joke with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald is that McIlroy has taken the last six months off.
There's no better time to start than now.
Even though the majors are over, McIlroy could find a big payoff waiting for him if he can start producing the results that made him No. 1 in the world at this time a year ago. He finally sorted out his driver issues in July, and he was swinging freely during Wednesday's pro-am round at Liberty National.
Yes, he found the water with his tee shot on the drivable par-4 16th, but only because his high fade fell about a yard too far to the right. His next shot was on the edge of the green, and he pounded his drives down the middle of the 17th and 18th fairways. His game looks sharp. His mood is upbeat.
And he laughed at the idea that he could still walk away with a FedEx Cup trophy and $10 million prize after all he's been through this year.
"I think it would be great," he said. "That's the beauty of the FedEx Cup. You look at basketball, baseball, football. Teams squeeze in and make a great playoff run and win. I'm in that position. I've got nothing to lose and everything to gain."
There is still plenty up for grabs — for Woods, Mickelson, Adam Scott and so many others.
Even though Woods has five wins this year — no one else has more than two — Mickelson could make a case for PGA Tour player of the year if he were to win a playoff event (or two), particularly the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize to go along with his claret jug from the British Open. Despite two decades of greatness and a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame, Mickelson has never won player of the year, a money title or the Vardon Trophy.
Would that be enough? Bill Haas didn't hesitate when asked who had the best year — Woods.
Neither did Scott, despite his green jacket for winning the Masters.
"It's hard to pass up looking at five wins," Scott said. "I think the next best guy might have two, is that right? That's a great year to win that many times. It's all personal opinion. If you think winning a major is what you base success on, then if you haven't (won), you haven't had a great year. But winning ... I've always based it around winning events, and I don't think one major makes up for five tournaments."
That led to another question: Would Scott trade seasons with Woods?
"I'd rather have mine, that's for sure," said Scott, who collected his first major at Augusta National. "He may want mine. I mean, No. 15 is proving to be difficult for him, so that would have given him that. But they've all got to get tougher the more you get."
Woods only played nine holes of his pro-am Wednesday at Liberty National, the course along the Hudson River across from the Statue of Liberty. He experienced stiffness in his neck and back from what he attributed to a soft bed in his hotel, and Woods decided only to chip and putt on the back nine as a precaution.
It was the latest nagging injury this year — a tweaked back during the final round of the PGA Championship, an elbow injury in the summer that caused him to miss two tournaments — though Woods was not concerned and said he was fine during his week off at home in Florida.