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Rory McIlroy sets his sights on FedEx Cup final

Tiger Woods of the U.S. talks to Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland on the tee of the 12th hole during the final round of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio in this file photo from June 2, 2013. McIlroy, who will face Woods in the upcoming Barclays tournament, feels it may be premature to write Woods off, despite his major title drought dating back to the 2008 U.S. Open.

Matt Sullivan/Reuters

The last player to win back-to-back majors in the same season didn't even make it to the FedEx Cup final at East Lake.

"That's not going to happen," Rory McIlroy said with a smile.

He's correct, based on simple math.

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Padraig Harrington won the British Open and PGA Championship in 2008 – and it was just his bad luck that the FedEx Cup was restructured that year in an attempt to create more volatility in the playoff events. It rewarded mediocrity instead. Harrington began the playoffs by missing two straight cuts and soon was eliminated.

The system in place the past five years doesn't allow for that.

McIlroy is the No. 1 seed when the playoffs get started Thursday at the Barclays, and he is assured of reaching the Tour Championship. But his hopes of cashing in on the $10-million (U.S.) prize are based more on form than a calculator.

The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland is coming off three straight victories, and they were big ones – the British Open, a World Golf Championship and the PGA Championship. He is No. 1 in the world and starting to separate himself from the rest of golf.

And he's not interested in getting off this amazing run.

"I could just say, 'Look, I've had a great year, it's been an awesome summer. I'm going to just see what happens for the next few weeks and not really work hard,'" McIlroy said Wednesday. "But I want to finish the season well. I want to be up there in contention week in and week out. I feel like the season I had deserves a finish like that. So I'm going to just grind it out every week that I can until I get a bit of a break after the Ryder Cup."

Now that the majors are done for the year, the FedEx Cup presents the best four-week stretch in golf – four tournaments with the best players from the world's strongest tour competing for a shot at the richest bonus in golf.

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The Barclays has one of the strongest fields of the year, even though a few players are noticeable by their absence.

Tiger Woods was in town this week, but only for corporate work with McIlroy. Woods missed three months of the season recovering from back surgery and hurt his back again in only his third tournament back. He didn't come close to finishing among the top 125 who qualified for the playoffs.

Dustin Johnson is No. 6, though he is taking a "voluntary leave" to seek professional help for "personal challenges." Jason Dufner is No. 57, though he is out indefinitely with a neck injury. Steve Stricker is at No. 103 and withdrew because of a hip injury that will turn his part-time schedule into no schedule at all for the next few months.

Stricker was a long shot to make the Tour Championship, though this ends his streak of playing in every Tour Championship since the FedEx Cup began in 2007. Phil Mickelson (No. 45) and Hunter Mahan (No. 62) are the others who have made it to East Lake each of the past seven years.

As good as McIlroy has been, the playoffs offer no guarantees.

The $10-million bonus is based largely on who performs well in the Tour Championship, no matter what they've done all year or even in the three weeks leading up to it. McIlroy learned that the hard way in 2012, when he was coming off a PGA Championship victory and won back-to-back playoff events. He tied for 10th in the Tour Championship, which Brandt Snedeker won to capture the cup.

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He doesn't seem to mind.

"I still got $3-million for second," McIlroy said. "It is volatile, but it creates excitement at the end of the season when previously there wasn't much excitement. So I don't mind how it's loaded. Just means you have to play well right until the end."

McIlroy has been playing nothing short of great for the past month.

"What Rory has done is phenomenal and worthy of all the attention he gets," Adam Scott said. "And I think he's the rightful No. 1 golfer in the world at the moment."

Scott is the defending champion at the Barclays, winning a year ago at Liberty National.

The Barclays returns to Ridgewood Country Club, a classic course that figures to be a stronger test than what players faced at Valhalla two weeks ago in the final major of the year. The rough is so thick in spots that Jimmy Walker said he nearly couldn't find his golf ball just a few paces off the fairway during the pro-am Wednesday.

McIlroy will play the opening two rounds with Walker and Masters champion Bubba Watson, the top three players in the FedEx Cup. The long shot is Robert Allenby, who got the 125th spot by a single point and will need a solid week just to keep playing. The top 100 in the FedEx Cup after the Barclays advance to the second round of the playoffs next week at the TPC Boston.

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