Rory McIlroy insists he is happy just to have an outside shot at winning a third FedEx Cup title and 15million US dollar (£10.9million) first prize at this week’s season-ending Tour Championship.
McIlroy, who joined Tiger Woods as the only two-time winners of the event in 2019, starts the week at East Lake eight shots behind Patrick Cantlay under the controversial handicap system.
Starting in 2019, the player with the most FedEx Cup points starts the Tour Championship on 10 under par, in this case BMW Championship winner Cantlay, who beat Bryson DeChambeau on the sixth hole of a play-off on Sunday.
As the second-highest points earner, Tony Finau begins on eight under par, with DeChambeau at seven under and so on, on a sliding scale down to the players in 26th to 30th who start on level par.
McIlroy starts on two under but has previous experience of giving his rivals a head start and still emerging victorious.
“The first year that it was played in this format I started five back and I ended up winning the tournament by three,” McIlroy told a pre-tournament press conference.
“The people that have played well have an advantage. It’s not an insurmountable advantage like it has been in previous years where guys have turned up to the Tour Championship not having to do anything to win the FedEx Cup. You don’t want that to happen either.
“I think this is definitely the best format so far. There’s clarity for the players. There’s clarity for the fans. I think everyone that’s in the top 30 deserves to be here and then because of that everyone in the top 30 deserves to feel like they have a chance to win it all.
“I’m just happy to be here, to be honest. I was 28th going into last week at Caves Valley. I knew I needed at least a decent week to make it here and it turned out to be a bit better than that.
“I probably played some of the best golf I’ve played all year; not good enough to keep up with Patrick and Bryson, but certainly good enough to move up a few spots and get here this week.”
McIlroy shot 22 under par in Baltimore and still finished five shots out of the play-off, but the four-time major winner expects scoring to be more difficult in Atlanta.
“I think East Lake isn’t the easiest golf course in the world and it seems to be a course that separates the field somewhat,” McIlroy added.
“So the way I look at it, if I go out tomorrow and shoot six under, for example, which is the score I shot last year in the first round, get to eight under par and some of those top guys shoot even par or even one or two over, all of a sudden you’re right in it.
“I think it just puts the impetus, especially for people that are in my position, the bottom half of the field, you just have to get off to a fast start.”
Despite being in pole position for an eight-figure payout, Cantlay made it clear he is not a fan of the handicap system.
“I think, frankly, it’s not a good format,” he said. “I dislike the fact that we no longer have a Tour Champion. I dislike the fact that no-one knows, when they look at the leaderboard, who shot the lowest round this week.
“I think the fact that Xander (Schauffele) didn’t get a tournament win for beating the field by two or three shots (last year) is absolutely criminal and there has to be a better solution.
“I am not a mastermind on golf formats and there are lots of moving parts, so I’m not saying that I have the answer. There are lots of smart people and I guarantee you there must be an option for a better format out there than the current one we are playing in.”