By Larry Fine
PARAMUS New Jersey (Reuters) - Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar are primed for a chance to win this week's Barclays, the first installment of the four-event FedExCup playoffs, and derail the magical run of Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy, ranked first in the world and first in the FedExCup standings after winning the British Open, WGC-Bridgestone and PGA Championship in succession, begins a quest for a fourth victory in a row when the elite 125-man field tees it up on Thursday for the first round at Ridgewood Country Club.
Mickelson bounced back from a sub-par season with a second-place finish earlier this month behind the 25-year-old McIlroy in the PGA Championship at Valhalla for his ninth runner-up showing at a major.
"The PGA was a big week for me because it was the first time this year my game was back," Mickelson told reporters on Tuesday at the tree-lined course designed by A.W. Tillinghast.
"It gave me an excitement and energy heading into the FedExCup and Barclays here that my game is back and I'm ready to compete and get back into contention.
"It was so fun being up there again, and the nerves and the excitement of it all, it got me excited."
Kuchar was enthused about a return to Ridgewood, where in 2010 he won The Barclays with a birdie on the first playoff hole to defeat Scotsman Martin Laird.
"This is a place I've got fantastic memories from and a place that I knew when I played it the first time, it fit my eye and fit my game," American world number seven Kuchar said.
"I knew this was going to be a good track for me in 2010. I had a great result and I'm really excited to be back."
Kuchar is eager following the frustration of withdrawing from the PGA Championship in Louisville when his back seized up on him after his practice round on Tuesday.
"The muscles kind of locked up," he explained, while asserting that he now felt fully recovered. "With the help of a chiropractor, massage therapist, physical therapist, I got it straight again and feel good.
"They have given me a handful of little exercises to try to help strengthen the area."
With all 10 of the world's top-ranked players on hand and 23 of the top 30, the competition should be fierce in the opener of a series that pays a $10 million bonus to the points leader following the culminating Tour Championship.
Mickelson and Kuchar both said McIlroy was a daunting target.
"It's an incredible run," Mickelson said about McIlroy's exploits in his last three starts. "His level of play this last month has been exceptional."
World number 10 Mickelson, who is 45th on the points list from a winless season and will tee off with unheralded Justin Hicks and Will MacKenzie in Thursday's opening round, said maintaining that brilliance was McIlroy's next big challenge.
"From what I've seen over the years with Tiger (Woods), from 2000, if you want to compare it to that, he's got a ways to go," said the left-hander, recalling the three majors in a row won by Woods followed by a 2001 Masters title that gave him what was dubbed the "Tiger Slam".
"But to win the British and the PGA and throw a World Golf Championships in the middle, under anybody's circumstances, that is just a remarkable month of golf and some of the best that I've seen.
"You can probably go back and compare it to some of the Tiger stuff, (but) he's done that over decades."
This week's field at The Barclays includes 88 winners on the PGA Tour who have piled up a combined 389 victories on the U.S. circuit, including 21 major titles.
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)