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Playoffs begin with eye toward PGA Tour player of the year
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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. (AP) — The Olympics are over. The Ryder Cup in on the horizon.

In between is a $10 million payoff for winning the FedEx Cup, a four-tournament series that starts Thursday at The Barclays. Still up for grabs is who becomes the favorite for PGA Tour player of the year.

Jordan Spieth wasn’t sure who he considered the front-runner, perhaps because the summer has gone by so quickly due to the Olympic schedule. He first thought it would be Henrik Stenson, who won the British Open in that exquisite duel at Royal Troon. Then, he remembered Dustin Johnson winning the U.S. Open and a World Golf Championship at Firestone in consecutive starts.

Spieth could only say for certainty that he most likely wouldn’t be part of the conversation this year.

“I believe the player of the year award should go to someone who wins at the highest level,” Spieth said Wednesday. “Tiger won it in 2013 without winning a major, but he did win The Players, and the other events were all some of the best fields in golf. But I think that it’s hard to not give it to someone who has won a major championship.”

The next five weeks — there is a one-week break between the third and the final playoff event — figures to go a long way in shaping that race.

Not to be overlooked is Jason Day, whose three victories include The Players Championship and the Match Play.

“I think a couple wins would be nice — a couple more wins should do it, yeah,” Day said. “That should just take everything out, even with what Dustin has done. To have five wins, and especially two more wins in the playoffs, will obviously get it done.”

He makes it sound so simple, perhaps because that’s what he did last year.

Spieth was a shoo-in for PGA Tour player of the year in 2015 until Day won The Barclays and the BMW Championship, and suddenly Spieth’s amazing run through the majors — two victories, a runner-up finish and missing a playoff by one shot at St. Andrews — was in doubt. Spieth took care of that by winning the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup, completing the best year in the FedEx Cup era.

And as Day has found out, winning isn’t easy. He has gone more than three months since his last victory.

It all starts to unfold Thursday at Bethpage Black, a course that makes nothing seem easy. The Black came into prominence when it hosted the U.S. Open for the first time in 2002, and then seven years later in the rain. It last hosted The Barclays in 2012.

The course is famous for its warning sign on the first tee: “The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”

“It should say it’s a risk even for really good players,” Spieth said. “The course I’ve played the last two days is up there with the hardest, probably top-five courses I’ve ever played in my life. And it’s Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, and it’s soft.”

Spieth has won twice this year and goes into the playoffs at No. 5. The trick is to stay there.

The top 125 players qualified for the playoffs. Four players are not at Bethpage because they want to conserve energy (Sergio Garcia, Danny Willett) or play in Europe (Shane Lowry), or are injured (Anirban Lahiri).

Only the top 100 advance to the next event at the Deutsche Bank Championship, and then the top 70 move on to the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick. The top 30 get to East Lake for the Tour Championship. The points are reset so that everyone has a mathematical chance at the $10 million bonus, and the top five only have to win at East Lake to capture golf’s biggest payoff.

Day is in the No. 1 spot going into the playoffs, barely moving past Johnson with his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship. Now that points are quadrupled for the next three events, this is the time of year to be playing the best golf.

This is the 10th year of the FedEx Cup playoffs, and Day says they are starting to get some traction. The tour has created bobbleheads of the eight players who have won it (Tiger Woods is the only player to win it twice). Then again, it’s hard to ignore that other value of winning.

“I’m not going to lie — there’s a big price tag at the end of the four events that is very, very motivating,” Day said. “You put that kind of number behind anything, that’s very motivating for most people.”