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Some are at the point of no return

38 players on bubble in FedEx Cup playoffs

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / August 25, 2011

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Leave it to a former accountant to try to figure out all the scenarios for the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs. Actually, as the final hour played out last Sunday, even Padraig Harrington couldn’t keep track of everything.

“It’s awkward because you’re watching things, and you are really out of control,’’ said Harrington, who gave up accounting when his professional golf career took off. “Some guys playing well helped me, and other guys not playing well helped me. There was a lot of combinations.’’

Harrington needed help, because he came into last week’s PGA Tour stop in Greensboro, N.C., at No. 130 on the points list, and only the top 125 qualify. After all of the number crunching - Harrington tied for 47th in Greensboro - he moved up six places, and advanced to the playoffs by the slimmest of margins.

He is in the field today when The Barclays begins at Plainfield Country Club in Edison, N.J., with thoughts of making a deep run in a postseason that once again features next week’s Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston as the second event, ending on Labor Day.

It’s a playoff season that seems out of whack before it even begins. Luke Donald is ranked No. 1 in the world but is just fourth in the points race. That’s one spot in front of Keegan Bradley, the PGA Tour rookie and Hopkinton High School graduate who stunned the golf world by winning the PGA Championship two weeks ago in his major debut.

The biggest news might be who’s not there. Tiger Woods, a two-time FedEx Cup winner who has been limited to eight starts this year because of injury, could do no better than 129th, the first time in his career that he didn’t earn enough points to qualify.

The playoffs, though, will go on as scheduled. Nick Watney, on the strength of two victories and eight top-10 finishes this year, is the man to catch, but he might need a high finish in New Jersey to maintain his lead. Points are worth five times as much now, so there very easily could be a new leader by the time the Tour train pulls into Norton next week.

“If I was able to go out and win one of the next three events, all of a sudden you’ve got yourself in a situation where you could win the FedEx Cup again,’’ said Jim Furyk, who won last year’s title despite missing The Barclays after he was disqualified for missing his pro-am tee time.

Furyk, who began the postseason third in the points race last year, is 60th this time, but at least he didn’t have to sweat out making the initial field. Of the 125 playing this week, only the low 100 advance to the Deutsche Bank Championship, with the low 70 after that moving to the BMW Championship in Chicago, and the top 30 qualifying for the Tour Championship in Atlanta, where every player will have at least a mathematical chance at winning the $10 million first-place bonus prize.

Harrington wasn’t the only one to squeeze in. Ernie Els and Camilo Villegas were also on the fence until solid finishes last week pushed them through. Els was the points leader heading into last year’s Barclays. This time he’ll start 118th, two spots ahead of James Driscoll of Boston. They’ll need good weeks at Plainfield for their postseason to continue.

Woods isn’t the only big name sitting at home. Justin Leonard (No. 126), Ben Curtis (133), Paul Casey (144), Louis Oosthuizen (148), Angel Cabrera (154), David Duval (171), and John Daly (200) - all former major champions, save for Casey - haven’t qualified, and won’t be able to play on Tour until Justin Timberlake’s event in Las Vegas the first week of October, when the four-tournament Fall Series begins.

Woods, hoping to be named by captain Fred Couples to the Presidents Cup team, says he might play in one of the Fall Series events. Others, like Daly this week, will stay sharp during the forced layoff by playing in a Nationwide Tour event.

One player who has earned enough points for the playoffs won’t be competing. J.B. Holmes, who is 66th, is expected to miss at least three months because he’s scheduled to undergo brain surgery.

For those who are playing, the potential for greatness awaits. First step is making sure they’re in the top 100 come Sunday night. The PGA Tour issued a release this week saying anyone inside the top 87 is guaranteed to move on. That puts 38 players on the bubble, including Harrington, who dealt with the same uncertainty last week.

“I want to finish top 30 this week,’’ Harrington said. “Then I wouldn’t have to think about it.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.