The 2018 PGA Tour majors season came to a close last week with Brooks Koepka’s triumph at Bellerive Country Club in the PGA Championship, and as sad as it is that another major will not be held until next April’s Masters Tournament, there is still a lot to look forward to over this last month-and-a-half of the Tour season.
The first of those closing events is this week’s Wyndham Championship – a Greensboro, North Carolina tournament held since 1938 and famously won by Sam Snead eight times.
The Wyndham is in a unique position on the PGA Tour schedule, as it is the final week of the FedExCup regular season, meaning one last chance for those outside the top 125 in the standings to make the playoffs. From there, anyone can take the FedEx crown, which comes with a check for a cool $10 million.
Jockeying for playoff position might be the most distinguishing feature of the week, but it is not the only storyline worth a close look this week:
1. LAST CALL FOR FEDEXCUP PLAYOFFS
It has come down to this.
Nearly 40 weeks of clawing, kicking, and scratching to get into the ultra-lucrative FedExCup playoffs, and enjoy all the exemptions that come with it, the final event of the regular season is upon us. At the end of the Wyndham Championship, the top 125 in the FedExCup standings will move on to New Jersey, the site of The Northern Trust, aka the first round of the playoffs.
Heading into the last event of the regular season, here is the playoff bubble:
120. Sam Saunders
121. Bud Cauley
122. Jhonattan Vegas
123. Seamus Power
124. Martin Piller
125. Tyrone Van Aswegan
126. Chad Campbell
127. Robert Garrigus
128. Corey Conners
129. Nick Taylor
130. Tom Lovelady
Among the notables outside the top 125 that still have a realistic shot at sneaking into the playoffs include Sergio Garcia (131), Harris English (132), Shane Lowry (139), Steve Stricker (141), Retief Goosen (147), and Bill Haas (150). Heck, Davis Love III moved inside the top 125 from the 186 slot when he won the 2015 Wyndham.
Those from outside the top 150 who would love to replicate Love’s feat include Hunter Mahan (157), Wesley Bryan (161), and Jim Furyk (171).
In regards to the bubble, it should be pointed out that No. 121 Bud Cauley will not be at Sedgefield, as he is out indefinitely, recovering from injuries (broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and a leg fracture) sustained during a serious car crash the week of The Memorial Tournament. If he stays inside the top 125 after this week, his position will not be replaced by someone who otherwise would not make the field. There would simply be one less player at The Northern Trust.
In an average year, 2.7 golfers play themselves from outside the top 125 to inside at the Wyndham Championship. Last year was above average with four players – Martin Flores, Rory Sabbatini, Harold Varner III, and JJ Henry – making the move.
While the bubble gets the most attention, it is not just the players on the periphery of the playoffs that are concerned with their position. After the first round of the playoffs, only the top 100 will move on to the second round, with similar cuts being made after the second and third round. FedExCup points do not reset until the Tour Championship, so earning more points at Sedgefield this week helps anyone hoping to make a deep playoff run.
2. STENSON DEFENDS
At last year’s Wyndham Championship, Henrik Stenson finished atop the leaderboard by one stroke, ending a four year winless drought in the United States. Four birdies in a five hole span on the back nine catalyzed the victory, which jumped the 2016 Champion Golfer of the Year from 75th to 23rd in the FedExCup Standings, which allowed him to reach the penultimate round of the playoffs.
Stenson returns to Sedgefield this year to defend that title, still his most recent victory anywhere. At No. 19 in the OWGR, the only higher-ranked player in the Wyndham field is No. 16 Hideki Matsuyama.
2018 has been a good year for Stenson on the PGA, as he has five top-10 finishes in 13 starts, which include a solo-fourth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a T5 at The Masters, and a T6 at the U.S. Open.
Statistically he looks even better: he leads the Tour in greens in regulation percentage, is second in driving accuracy, third in strokes gained: approach-the-green, fifth in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and 10th in scoring average. Those stats confirm what we already know about Stenson; namely that he is an elite iron player.
Yet, despite all the reasons to be high on Stenson’s chances of becoming the first repeat Wyndham champion since Sam Snead in 1955-1956, nobody is sure what to expect from him this week. Prior to The Open Championship, Stenson injured his elbow in an off-course incident, and in three starts since, he has finished T39 at The Open, T35 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and missed the cut at the PGA Championship.
Stenson does not really NEED a win this week (although he is not yet a lock for the European Ryder Cup team), and most would figure that he would not be at Sedgefield if his elbow was still bothering him, but until we actually see him out there playing well, nobody will know for sure. So far, little has been reported about the severity of the injury.
3. WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO OLLIE?
Stenson’s triumph at Sedgefield was nearly thwarted by then 24-year-old Ollie Schniederjans, who exploded late on Sunday, and barely missed the cup on an eagle attempt on the 72nd hole. The runner-up finish was the best career result for Schneiderjans, who had five top-10 finishes coming into the week.
One year later, that solo second place is still his best career finish. In his last three 2017 events after the Wyndham, Schneiderjans struggled to finishes of CUT, CUT, 66 and was eliminated from the FedExCup playoffs with just one week to go.
The Georgia Tech product rebounded to get his 2018 season off to a good start, however, with five top-25s in his first seven events, including a T3 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Since his top 3 at TPC Scottsdale in early February, the results have just not been there for Schneiderjans. In those 17 events, he did make 13 cuts, but the only one that led to a finish of better than T26 was a solo-fifth place finish at the Barracuda Championship, an opposite-field event to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational two weeks ago.
Schneiderjans is still playing well around the greens, but his accuracy has been an issue in 2018. He ranks a dismal 195th on Tour in driving accuracy, and 165th in greens in regulation, and was outside the top 70 in both stats at last week’s PGA Championship. He makes plenty of birdies, ranking 25th on Tour in birdie average, but has not been able to avoid the big numbers at the same time.
There is still a great deal of hope for Schneiderjans, and at No. 82 in the FedExCup Standings, his spot in the playoffs is safe, but he will need more performances like his 2017 Wyndham outing if he wants to be a long-term factor on Tour.
4. NIEMANN LOOKING TO EXTEND SEASON
Much has been about the extremely impressive rookie season of 19-year-old Chilean star Joaquin Niemann, who turned professional in April after the second-longest stint on top of the world amateur rankings in history.
Niemann finished solo-6th in his first professional event, the Valero Texas Open, where he went 67-67 on the weekend, and he has posted four top-10 finishes in just 11 events, earning nearly $1.2 million in the process. Now that he has enough starts to qualify, he ranks 2nd on Tour to Stenson in greens in regulation percentage, second in birdie average, and 15th in strokes gained: tee-to-green, making him a fantastic fit for Sedgefield.
Niemann has cooled off some as of late, netting finishes of T23 and T37 before a tough week at the PGA Championship where he made the cut, but finished T71. However, he is still considered a good bet for the Wyndham Championship, largely due to motivation.
Not yet a full-time member on the PGA Tour, Niemann is ineligible for FedExCup points, but that would suddenly change with a victory; he would be a full-time member and the points he earned in prior events would count.
That scenario is rare, but not unprecedented; Jordan Spieth did in 2013 by winning the John Deere Classic, and then making the Tour Championship, finishing T7 in the final FedExCup standings.