PGA Tour pros keep eyes on the prize

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The FedEx Cup doesn't care if you've won the money title on both sides of the Atlantic in the same year (No. 55 Luke Donald and No. 49 Rory McIlroy). It doesn't heap praise on you if you're a Ryder Cup stalwart (No. 70 Ian Poulter) or one of the biggest names hailed as the future of American golf (No. 42 Rickie Fowler.)

What does catch its attention are FedEx Cup points -- and lots of them. Golf fans might not completely understand the playoffs system, but it's a conglomeration of rules that determines the fate of PGA Tour golfers and their future.

Take Fowler, for example. The golfer who's also known for wearing Sunday orange and flatbill caps doesn't have to worry about having a job next year. What's not locked up is a spot at the season-ending Tour Championship, from which many more prizes -- measured both in pride and money -- flow. He has to jump up 12 places to earn that honor.

After tying the course record with a 7-under-par 64 on Friday that was later broken by Keegan Bradley's 63, he attributed his strong play to a turnaround with his swing at the Open Championship, but he's got more things on his mind.

"Obviously, my goal is to make the Tour Championship," said Fowler, who's now projected well inside the top 30 to punch his ticket to East Lake. "There's [the] Presidents Cup in the back of my mind. I just want to play well right now."

Fowler is currently 17th on the U.S. Presidents Cup team points list. The 24-year-old still has two weeks left before the top 10 automatic spots are locked down on American captain Fred Couples' team -- plus two possible captain's picks on Sept. 5 -- but time is of the essence.

For some, like Fowler's band mate Ben Crane -- remember the Golf Boys? -- they just hoped he'd get a tee time next week in the second event of the FedEx Cup playoffs at the DeutscheBank Championship. That won't happen now that he pulled out of the Barclays on Friday with an injury, but earlier this week he embraced the "bubble boy" mentality, since he's No. 125 on the FedEx Cup points list.

Everyone in the field at the Barclays this week surely wants that $10 million carrot sitting there waiting at the Tour Championship next month. They also want to win this week's event, too. The reality is, guys are battling for position not just for this week, but for next month and next year.

So what else is at stake? Besides remaining inside the top 100 in FedEx Cup points to earn that tee time next Friday at TPC Boston, players are trying to get inside the top 70 for invites to some key events in 2014, like the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Memorial Tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus.

Seventy is also the cutoff point for making the field at the BMW Championship in Chicago, the penultimate playoff event. And there's always the top 30 at East Lake looming in the minds of many pros. To win that $10 million, you can't win it unless you're in it -- the field in Atlanta, that is.

All the possible permutations are a bit mind-boggling. It must leave an MIT grad student foaming at the mouth. For PGA Tour players, though, it can cause huge swings that determine their immediate future and sometimes long-term plans, whether they like it or not.

"With all the points [in the playoffs] being like five times worth what we play in the regular season, guys are going to make big moves and big moves happen over the course of five minutes," said Mark Wilson, who was 102nd on the FedEx Cup points list coming into this week but won't crack the top 100 and move on to Boston after missing the cut at the Barlcays. "[After] a birdie-bogey situation … all of a sudden, a guy goes from out [of the next event] to in and another guy's out. … There's so much jockeying you just have to play the best you can and see where you stand at the end."

So where will everyone end up? That we won't know, at least for this week, until the last putt drops Sunday at Liberty National. That roller coaster will be fun to watch, as long as you don't play on the PGA Tour.