Rory McIlroy banks on a slip from Brandt Snedeker in Tour Championship

Those behind the complicated setup of the FedEx Cup play-offs should now be assured of the thrilling climax the competition was set up to achieve.

Rory McIlroy was fully anticipating a challenge here in Atlanta for the $10m (£6m) bounty that comes with FedEx success. What he may not have banked on is the variety of angles from which the threat has come during the Tour Championship.

A third-round 64 from Brandt Snedeker suddenly had the US Ryder Cup player at the summit of the FedEx projections, one place ahead of McIlroy, who shot a 68. It is hardly being disrespectful to Snedeker to point out he had not featured much in pre-tournament discussions.

The machinations of these play-offs have been widely criticised – and infrequently understood – but at least, rightly or wrongly, they will retain interest until the culmination of the fourth round at East Lake.

In order to claim the lucrative awards of FedEx success, McIlroy will seek to improve on his tied fourth place, hope Snedeker slips back down the field, or look for a combination of those scenarios. The world No1 may take heart from the fact Snedeker has never held a lead going into the final round of a championship and gone on to win. "These other guys aren't near the top of the standings for no reason, they have been playing well," McIlroy said. "I always knew if I won here then I would win everything. That is still my aim going into Sunday."

Justin Rose lies alongside Snedeker with the Atlanta lead at eight under and is placed third in the FedEx projections. Jim Furyk was similarly prominent until a triple bogey seven on the 17th knocked him back outside of the play-off top five.

In fourth lies Tiger Woods, who recovered from a troublesome Friday to card a 67 and tie seventh here.

Given that mere mortals could suffer brain freeze when attempting to break down the FedEx calculations, quite how those competing can focus on the job in hand is anybody's guess.

McIlroy could yet be placed in the intriguing scenario of protecting, for example, a top-three place at East Lake rather than taking risks to win this competition, just to confirm his position as the FedEx champion.

"I am only three shots back; I was three shots back going into the last day at [of the Deutsche Bank Open] Boston and won from there so I am just looking to do the same again.

"It is going to be great, one of the most exciting Sundays of the year I am sure. I go out every Sunday to try to win so this will be like any other week."

McIlroy maintained a 100% record for sand saves in the Tour Championship on the 18th hole. He planned to spend the morning watching his beloved Manchester United take on Liverpool, rather than fretting about FedEx matters. McIlroy's girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, is a Liverpool supporter.

Woods missed putts, found only six fairways from the tee and hit a series of stray iron shots but still finds himself in contention. As ever, that is an ominous situation for the field if Woods can suddenly click back into his best final-round gear.

"I've done it before. I've been out here a long time, you just claw your way back into it and usually I'll take a round in the 60s," said Woods, before playing down the significance of that $10m.

"That's not why we play. I'm playing for the win and on Sunday I get a great shot at it. All the money and awards that come with it comes with winning championships.

"The way I've always looked at it is that if I win the golf tournament, everything is taken care of."

Rose seems to have revelled in featuring relatively under the glare of publicity here. The Englishman's almost flawless Georgian form will not be lost on José Maria Olazábal, with next weekend's Ryder Cup in mind.

"Today was a great day, really," Rose said after his 68. "I felt a little banged up this morning, my shoulder and scapula was all tight. I had a hard time making a back swing on the range.

"I knew it was one of things that would loosen up as the day went on and luckily that happened.

"This is the kind of golf I really enjoy. I like tests like this. Birdies are possible but you have to grind for your pars. I feel that challenge suits me mentally and suits my game."

Powered by article was written by Ewan Murray at East Lake, for The Observer on Sunday 23rd September 2012 00.45 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Ed McDonald