Japan’s Number One: Hideki Matsuyama has risen above the field

“This is the time that all of us really need to up our games.”

Hideki Matsuyama’s quote could not be more true, coming from a golfer whose game has taken him to new heights in 2017. Despite not winning a major championship – he came close with a runner-up finish at the U.S. Open and 5th at the PGA – a Player of the Year argument can be made if he wins the FedEx Cup.

Japan’s star golfer has four wins on Tour this year, most recently his impressive run in claiming the WGC-Bridgestone title. No one is playing better golf right now than Matsuyama. He shot a round of 61 at the WGC, then fired a 64 at the difficult Quail Hollow course two weeks ago before ultimately falling out of contention on Sunday.

Matsuyama is a 10/1 favorite at this week’s Northern Trust tournament and is also the top golfer according to oddsmakers to take home the FedEx Cup at 9/2. The FedEx Cup runs through Japan.

Here are four additional storylines to follow throughout the playoffs:

Is Rory fit to play at a high level?

McIlroy stated at his press conference, Wednesday, that he feels good enough to “win this thing,” meaning the FedEx Cup trophy. But which Rory will we see beginning this week at The Northern Trust?

After a 22nd place finish at the PGA Championship, McIlroy indicated that a rib injury and numbness in his left arm could limit him entering the playoffs. He said on Wednesday the rib is “fine” and is fit to play, but explained it’s after rounds when the numbness sometimes occurs. He has committed to playing out the playoffs, plus the Dunhill Links Championship in October, before shutting it down to prepare for 2018.

McIlroy enters the week 44th in the points standings, so he’s got a hill to climb. He’ll certainly make up ground, but can he win? We’ll see.

What do major winners Koepka, Spieth and Thomas have for an encore?

Brooks Koepka certainly has the game to make a run. The U.S. Open champion hits the ball a mile and has one of the best putting strokes on Tour, making him a serious contender to Matsuyama and company.

But the real focus has to be on best friends and playing partners to begin The Northern Trust: Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

Both men are the frontrunners to win Player of the Year and rightfully so. Spieth has three wins which includes his victory at The Open, while JT has four following his PGA Championship breakthrough win. It’s clear JT is the favorite, but Spieth can make his argument with an impressive conclusion to the season. He’s the 2015 winner at East Lake where the Tour Championship is held beginning Sept. 21.

Let’s not forget about DJ and Rickie

Dustin Johnson begins the playoffs in 4th place, despite a string of solid recent finishes (13th, 17th, 8th).

Unless a miracle happens, the world No. 1 isn’t likely to add his name to the Player of the Year conversation despite three wins in 2017. However, he’s flying under the radar, which is wild to think. DJ can contend if he wants to.

Rickie Fowler has to be one of the top five favorites to win the FedEx Cup, given his recent form of six top 10s in his last eight starts. He carries momentum into The Northern Trust after finishing 5th at the PGA with a final round 68.

Another young star will emerge

Koepka, Hideki, JT…Who’s next?

All three golfers are 27 years or younger and had career-best seasons in 2017. But the Tour schedule isn’t over. Another young star will emerge over the next month.

Could it be Daniel Berger? He’s had success in playoff events since moving up to the PGA circuit, and won the St. Jude earlier this year.

What about Patrick Reed? The 27-year-old nearly won the PGA two weeks ago was victorious in last year’s Northern Trust event.

Keep an eye on Jon Rahm and Tony Finau as well. Lots of great players with only a little time left in the season.