The Barclays 2012 Preview: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy Paired Together In Loaded Field At Bethpage

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 28: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Tiger Woods of the USA during the third round of Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on January 28, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

The 2012 FedEx Cup Playoffs begin this week with The Barclays at Bethpage Black.

The 2012 FedEx Cup Playoffs begin this week on Long Island at Bethpage State Park. The PGA Tour returns to the Black Course for the first time since Lucas Glover captured the 2009 U.S. Open at this monster Tillinghast layout. The Barclays is the first of four playoff legs that stop at four great American cities. It has recently rotated around the various courses in the tri-state area, from last year at Plainfield to the widely-critcized Liberty National to the traditional stop at Westchester Country Club. This will likely not be the brutish USGA setup at Bethpage, but the course is undoubtedly a major championship test.

With a $10 million pot at the end, Commissioner Tim Finchem and the Tour have done a good job of getting all of the best players in the world to participate. That's once again the case this year with the top 125 players in the standings teeing it up on Thursday. Tiger Woods finished the season No. 1 in the the FedEx Cup Standings and the Tour put him together in a power group with Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson. There will be plenty for the golf scribes to write about in that group, with the inevitable Woods comparisons being rained down upon McIlroy after his second major win at the age of 23. Johnson, who's sure to be the third wheel, had perhaps the most consistent season on Tour and is sure to be a mainstay for the American team at the Ryder Cup next month in Chicago.

Dustin Johnson, last year's winner in a rain-shortened Saturday finish at Plainfield, is paired with Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell. Johnson is likely on the outside looking in for the Ryder Cup, but a strong push to finish the month of August could supplant Rickie Fowler as a captain's pick. McDowell, who stared down Johnson at Pebble Beach two years ago, has been near the top of the leaderboard at the last three majors and is sure to be a factor during the next four playoff tournaments.

Phil Mickelson will play alongside Luke Donald, who spent most of the summer as the No. 1-ranked player in the world. Mickelson qualified for the Ryder Cup on points, but he needs to get his game in shape for Medinah. Sandwiched in between the Mickelson and Woods tee times is the American powerhouse threesome of Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker, and Keegan Bradley. Kuchar won the Barclays two years ago, and was in the hunt last year before Johnson edged him out. While Stricker hasn't qualified for the Ryder Cup, he'll almost certainly be a captain's choice and be paired with Woods. That cluster of three consecutive tee times should make for a madhouse out on the course.

The opposite wave from Woods-Mickelson will feature some of the younger superstars and three of the 2012 major winners. Jim Furyk will be playing alongside Rickie Fowler and Brandt Snedeker, a somewhat diabolical grouping by the Tour. All three are up for captain's picks on the Ryder Cup. Furyk's spot is likely the safest, and Fowler is generally thought to have the inside track for the last spot, leaving Snedeker as the final man out. These first two days where they'll unofficially be playing head-to-head could change the mind of Davis Love III. Playing behind those three will be British Open winner Ernie Els and U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson, with Englishman Justin Rose, a favorite to be there at the end, rounding out the group.

With the top 125 qualifiers in attendance, nearly every group is worth following at The Barclays. An $8 million purse makes the tournament lucrative in its own right, but a strong showing here can propel a player to the finals in Atlanta. At the other end of the spectrum, 25 of the 125 will be left in the cold and not advance to the Deutsche Bank in Boston. All eyes will be on Woods and McIlroy, but as we saw last year with Bill Haas, anyone can claim the big prize at the end with a steady month. That opportunity begins Thursday at Bethpage.

For more news and leaderboard updates from The Barclays, visit SB Nation's golf hub.

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