Henrik Stenson had been absent from two big golf markets in America for longer than he would care to remember.
He last played in Chicago six years ago, the first year of the FedEx Cup. The last time he played golf in Atlanta was in 2006 when he missed the cut in the old BellSouth Classic the week before the Masters.
Stenson's best summer of golf is taking him places.
Fresh off his win two weeks ago in the Deutsche Bank Championship, the Swede is No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings going into the BMW Championship, which starts Thursday at Conway Farms Golf Club north of Chicago. He is assured of going to East Lake in Atlanta next week for what will be his first Tour Championship, and it would take a peculiar chain of events for Stenson to fall out of the top five and lose a clear shot at the $10 million prize for capturing the cup.
"I'm just very happy and excited about having the chance to have it in my own hands coming into the last event," Stenson said.
The FedEx Cup playoffs enter the third of four events at the BMW Championship. Here are five things to watch this week:
1. TIGER WOODS AND THE WINDY CITY: Chicago has always been Tiger Woods' kind of town.
He won two PGA Championships at Medinah. He won the Western Open three times and was runner-up twice, and he is a two-time winner at the BMW Championship, all of those events held at Cog Hill. In 15 appearances in the Chicago area — including three majors — Woods has finished out of the top 20 just once.
Woods is only 14 points behind Stenson going into the third playoff event. And while Chicago has been very, very good to him, Conway Farms is a mystery. Woods only saw it for the first time Wednesday in the pro-am, sending out his caddie, Joe LaCava, on a scouting report.
2. EARNING A TICKET TO EAST LAKE: For most players, the FedEx Cup playoffs are all about going to East Lake for the Tour Championship. The field for the BMW Championship has been trimmed to 70 players — there is no cut this week — and only the top 30 in the standings advance to East Lake.
Why is the Tour Championship such a big deal?
Everyone at East Lake mathematically has a chance to capture the FedEx Cup. It was only two years ago that Bill Haas at No. 25 in the standings won a playoff at the Tour Championship and went home $10 million richer.
But there's more. The 30 players at the Tour Championship earn exemptions to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, and most likely are assured a spot in the PGA Championship. That's a big deal for players like Roberto Castro and Brendon de Jonge (Nos. 25 and 26), and a number of players who are just outside the top 30 such as Kevin Stadler, Kevin Chappell and Chris Stroud.
3. STRICKER'S SEASON: Steve Stricker started the year with plans of a limited schedule, and he figured he would be ready for some hunting about now. He just never imagined doing so well. Stricker was runner-up for the third time this year at the TPC Boston two weeks ago. Not only did that move him to No. 8 in the FedEx Cup, it earned him a spot in the Presidents Cup on Oct. 3-6 at Muirfield Village.
Stricker decided to cancel an elk hunting trip to Colorado next week and instead play in the Tour Championship. Why? He has a shot at the $10 million prize. And he feels it would be a slap at the tour — not to mention his colleagues — to qualify for the Tour Championship and blow it off for a hunting trip with his buddies.
"For me to just shun that and walk away from that I think would have been wrong," he said.
4. THE DISAPPOINTMENTS: Rory McIlroy was asked if he would be more surprised at the end of the year to not have won a major or to not be at East Lake. He picked the latter, which required some clarification.
The majors are hard to win. They require a player to be in good form those four weeks of the year, along with getting a break or two. But getting to the Tour Championship is a measure of results across the year. A player of McIlroy's caliber ought to be able to fall out of bed and make it to Atlanta.
He is at No. 41 has to finish at least seventh to be able to move into the top 30 and advance to East Lake.
Also outside the top 30 is another former No. 1 player — Luke Donald at No. 54.
5. THE BIG FIVE: Along with the top 30 getting to the Tour Championship, a bigger deal is being in the top five in the FedEx Cup.
The points are reset after the BMW Championship, structured in such a way that anyone in the top five only has to win the Tour Championship to claim the $10 million bonus regardless of what anyone else does. The top five going into the BMW are Stenson, Woods, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar and Graham DeLaet, who has never won a PGA Tour event.
Phil Mickelson, who has never won the FedEx Cup, is at No. 6. Mickelson missed the pro-am and will be playing Conway Farms for the first time on Thursday.