JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Though spectators had to miss the first few hours of play at the Northern Trust on Thursday morning (officials kept the gates closed until 10 a.m. to finish cleaning up damage from a storm that hit the course the previous night), the golfers in the field at Liberty National understood they needed to be ready right from the start of the opening round.
The first tournament of the FedEx Cup Playoffs has always been important to set the tone for the final act of the PGA Tour season. Yet given various changes made to the 2019 Playoffs, this iteration of the Northern Trust came pre-baked with a bit more drama.
Specifically, decreasing the number of events from four to three, and adding the stroke-based format adjustment to the Tour Championship in Atlanta, means the stakes at the Northern Trust and next week’s BMW Championship in Chicago have increased in the minds of many players.
“You play the whole year to get into the FedEx Cup Playoffs. It’s a different format this year, so it puts more emphasis on the Northern Trust and over in Chicago at the BMW,” said Kevin Kisner, who finished the opening round with a seven-under-par 64. “We're all striving to play well in these first two and set ourselves up for a big Atlanta.”
Points for finishes in the first two playoff event are worth four times that of a regular-season tournament, with the winner earning 2,000 points for a victory. Considering that Brooks Koepka came into the Northern Trust at the top of the FedEx Cup standings with 2,887 points, players have the ability to move up (or down) the list quickly.
That movement becomes critical come the final event of the playoffs, the Tour Championship in Atlanta in two weeks. As has been the case previously, only the top 30 players advance to East Lake. But this year when they get there, players atop the points list will be given the advantage of starting the tournament a certain number of strokes under par (No. 1 will be 10 under, No. 2, eight under, No. 3, seven under, all the way through the 30th player starting at even par).
The incentive to play well in the first two events to improve your starting position in Atlanta is high.
“Most of the time you needed to be at least in the top 10 [of the points standings] if you wanted to win [the FedEx Cup], where now, even the 30th spot has a chance to win,” Dustin Johnson said after shooting a 63 on Thursday. “I think it’s cool. I think it makes for an exciting week, and as long as you make it to the Tour Championship, you’ve got a shot.”
“With the new system this year, it’s definitely going to be a test to see what happens,” said Bryson DeChambeau, defending champion at the Northern Trust, “because you can literally be leading and go out on the first hole and double it or triple it, and you’re right back in the ballgame pretty easily. It’s a little different. It’s a little weird, and we’ll see how it plays out.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—the added pressure from having one less event to earn points in, the first day at Liberty National was marked by some stellar play. That included a 62 by Day 1 leader Troy Merritt, who comfortably earned his spot in the Northern Trust field at No. 72 on the FedEx Cup points list, but he needs to play well this week to ensure being inside the top 70 after the event and moving on to compete at the BMW.
“I joked with my caddie, 'We need to shoot six under or 10 under and haven’t shot 10 under in a while,' ” Merritt said. “First time I shot nine under. … A couple pars, but we’re not disappointed with 62.”
The changes have only buoyed the hopes of the Northern Trust participants looking to end the season atop the leader board.
“You have a chance. That’s the big part,” Johnson said. “There’s always a chance.”