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Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy among big names in The Barclays

Former Masters and U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth

Former Masters and U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth tees off at the 17th hole during the Barclays ProAm event at Bethpage Black on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The PGA Tour’s version of postseason playoffs begins Thursday in The Barclays at Bethpage Black, the first of four events culminating with the $10 million prize for the winner of the FedExCup. Fears of a malaise in the post-Tiger Woods era have given way to the excitement of a five-man race at the top of the world rankings leader board among Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson and Rory McIlroy.

They’re all here in the starting gate, with Johnson, Stenson and Day as the leading contenders for player of the year honors, Spieth hoping to get back on track and defend the FedExCup title he won a year ago and McIlroy trying to find his putting stroke to get back to the top after a season in which his only win was in the Irish Open on the European Tour.

Day has three wins, including the prestigious Players Championship, but he understands Johnson has an edge for player of the year because his two wins include the U.S. Open. Stenson has one PGA Tour win, but it was a record-breaking performance in the British Open.

Asked Wednesday what he must do to claim player of the year, Day said, “A couple more wins should do it, even with what Dustin has done. To have five wins, and especially two more in the playoffs, will obviously get it done. If Dustin beats me this year, he deserves it.”

Johnson missed the cut at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol in his last event, but he’s No. 1 in driving distance and ranks third in tee-to-green stats. That gives him an advantage on the 7,468-yard Black Course, which by all accounts from the practice rounds is playing extremely difficult even though the greens have been soft.

“I’d love to win player of the year,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I feel I’d be right there in consideration.”

Stenson comes in with as much momentum as anyone following his British Open win, a seventh-place finish at the PGA and his silver medal at the Olympics. He called his first major championship “the crown of my career. It’s like your stock goes up because you become a major champion. It does have a nice ring to it, I have to say.”

Spieth, 23, found that out at an early age when he won the Masters and U.S. Open last year. But since losing a five-stroke lead in the final round of this year’s Masters, he has struggled with his driving accuracy (128th) and hitting greens in regulation (164th), and lately his putting (fourth) has been off.

“I struck the ball nicely at the last two majors, my last two events,” Spieth said. “I just really didn’t have my putter. So I put a lot of work into that and into my ball-striking. I have the potential to play my best golf of the year in these next (few) weeks, so I may as well grind and do what I can to make that a reality.”

Just two years ago, McIlroy was a dominant player, but he missed cuts at the U.S. Open and PGA thanks largely to poor putting that led him to change putters. He’s anxious to get back in the hunt for world No. 1.

“If you look in the world rankings, I’m in my position (fifth) for a reason,” McIlroy said. “For me right now, it’s just about improvement and trying to improve my putting.”

At the same time, McIlroy, who is 36th in FedExCup points, believes Bethpage Black sets up well for him and the playoffs are a fresh start.

“It offers guys like myself, who aren’t right up there, a chance to play well when it matters,” McIlroy said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

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