Pro Golf Weekly

5 Storylines: The Northern Trust

Forty weeks of the PGA Tour’s FedExCup regular season have sadly come to a close, but the most exciting action is yet to come, as the 2018 Ryder Cup is preceded by four weeks of the FedExCup playoffs.

Dustin Johnson The Northern Trust
Dustin Johnson tees off on the 11th hole during the second round of THE NORTHERN TRUST at Glen Oaks Club in Old Westbury, NY on Aug. 25, 2017. Photo by Ryan Young/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

Nearly the entire top 125 of the final standings will be on hand for The Northern Trust, the first round of the playoffs, with points getting quadrupled and the leader at the end of the four weeks becoming $10 million richer. Major or not, do not be fooled; the trophy given to the FedExCup Champion is among the most coveted pieces of hardware in professional sports.

Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, New Jersey is the host venue for the first round of the playoffs, and five of the most intriguing storylines are as followed: although interest goes well beyond that:

1. The Bubble: Top 100 Advance

Making the FedExCup Playoffs is a life-changing, career-defining accomplishment for some players, particularly the ones who are on the fringes of keeping their Tour cards every year. Reaching that top 125 guarantees a job for next year, at minimum.

But the job is far from over. After The Northern Trust, 25 of those 125 will be sent packing, while the rest move on to the Dell Technologies Championship. Playoff points over the first three rounds are quadrupled, so there is tremendous opportunity to move up well up the rankings. Literally anyone can win.

Danny Lee lines up a putt during the second round of the 2018 PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fl. Credit: Getty Images/David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

Here is the current playoff bubble as far as moving onto the Dell Tech is concerned:

96. Charl Schwartzel
97. Rory Sabbatini
98. Charley Hoffman
99. Alex Cejka
100. Ryan Palmer
——————————
101. Richy Werenski
102. Nick Watney
103. Danny Lee
104. Sung Kang
105. John Huh

Other notables on the wrong side of the cut line include Vaughn Taylor (112), Martin Laird (113), Sam Saunders (120), and Jhonattan Vegas (123).

In an average year, 5.8 golfers move from outside the top 100 to inside at The Northern Trust. Last year was anomalous with just three players making the move: Bubba Watson (113th to 72nd), Harold Varner III (123rd to 91st), and David Lingmerth (103rd to 87th). Those closer to the bottom of the standings should educate themselves on Heath Slocum and the 2009 Playoffs. Slocum entered the first round in 124th, pulled off an inspiring victory and moved all the way to third.

It is not just those fringe players who will be desperate to improve their standings. Points continue to accumulate over the first three rounds, and even for those who are a lock to make round 2, they will also want to play well at Ridgewood to improve their chances of making round 3 and round 4. At the Tour Championship, the points reset in a manner where anyone inside the top 5 automatically wins the FedExCup if they win the tournament. Everyone in the field would love to be able to grab one of those spots and control their destiny at East Lake.

2. DJ Defends

The 2017 Northern Trust provided some of the best golf drama of the season. Two heavyweights made the final Sunday pairing, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, and the two provided one of the best duels the playoffs have ever seen. DJ started Sunday three strokes back of Spieth, and after just five holes, that deficit stretched to five.

Then the light came on for DJ. He weathered the storm with steady play late on the front nine, while Spieth found some struggles, and by the 10th hole, the two were tied. They went back and forth down the stretch, with DJ sinking an 18 foot birdie putt on 18 to force a playoff.

Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson tees off on the ninth hole during the final round of THE NORTHERN TRUST at Glen Oaks GC in Old Westbury, NY on Aug. 27, 2017. Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

That playoff would last just one hole as Johnson was rewarded for a big risk off the tee, putting him in perfect position for an approach that he knocked to three-feet, a birdie, and then win. It was DJ’s fourth win of the season, but first since he had won three in a row, five months earlier. Johnson would finish fourth in the final standings, with Spieth taking second to Justin Thomas.

2018 has looked like more of the same for Johnson, as he enters the playoffs at No. 1 in the world rankings, and No. 1 position in the FedExCup Standings. He won three events, took runner-up in two others, and placed third in another two. Those three victories are tied for the 2018 Tour lead with Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson. None of the victories came in majors, however, which was mildly disappointing, but two of those wins came in the last two months, and he took third at the recent WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Statistically, DJ somehow looks even better than his No. 1 world and FedExCup ranking suggests. Among the crucial categories where he leads the Tour include strokes gained: off-the-tee, strokes gained: tee-to-green, strokes gained: total, birdie average, and scoring average.

DJ cannot go back in time and win one of the four 2018 majors, but he can turn a superb season into an incredible one with a deep run in the playoffs. It is going to be difficult to pass Brooks Koepka in the race for Player of the Year, but if DJ can get to 4-5 wins, he might have an argument. At the very least, he would solidify his standing atop the world rankings.

3. PGA Champ Koepka Returns to Action

The last time we saw Brooks Koepka in action, he was characteristically refusing to hog the spotlight, hitting his PGA Championship-winning tap-in, despite Adam Scott having a putt of his own left for runner-up.

Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka celebrates with caddie Ricky Elliott after winning the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive CC in St Louis, MO. Photo by Sam Greenwoode/Getty Images

With the victory, the 28-year-old Koepka cemented his status as the current King of the Majors, winning his second major championship of the year and his third in his last six major starts. He proved again, that when he is confident and feeling it in a major, nobody is his better.

Koepka, now a career-best No. 2 in the World Rankings is a career-best No. 3 in the FedExCup standings. He could have easily been even better, except that he missed nearly four months of action with a wrist injury that threatened to put an early end to his extremely-promising career. At the moment, he is the landslide favorite for PGA Tour Player of the Year, with $6.4 million in earnings in just 13 starts. He also finished a landslide No. 1 in the final Ryder Cup standings, and should be among the American side’s most feared players late next month.

Koepka does not have a plethora of playoff experience, but that does not feel important right now, and he has made good runs in his last four attempts. He finished 7th in last year’s playoffs, largely off the strength of making his final 16 cuts, finishing 19th the year prior, and 12th the year before that.

There is nothing that Koepka could do at Ridgewood to make his 2018 season anything other than a resounding success, but the unassuming bomber with surprising finesse is likely to assert his dominance even further. He might not have grown up with the hype that other stars on the Tour did, but there is no doubting that he is really, really good.

4. Tiger Tales

When Tiger Woods made it clear he was going to tee up this season, one of the possible outcomes considered successful would be if he made the top 125 in the FedExCup Standings. Well, not only did Tiger make the playoffs, he finished the regular season 20th(!) in the standings.

The latest jump in those standings occurred when Tiger shot his lowest final round ever in a major championship, a 64, to reach 14-under at Bellerive, better than 154 of the 155 other players in the PGA Championship field. As a result, the 42-year-old legend is going to the playoffs hotter than nearly the entire field.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods reacts to making a birdie on the 18th hole during the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive CC in St. Louis, MO. Photo by Montana Pritchard/PGAA via Getty Images

Tiger has not quite been able to score victory No. 80 in his illustrious career, but he keeps appearing closer and closer. With his result at the PGA Championship, he has two runner-ups, five top 10s and nine finishes in the top 25 in 14 appearances this season. Not bad at all for someone who had to sit out the entire 2016 season and nearly the entire 2015 one as well.

Tiger has committed to at least the first three rounds of the FedExCup Playoffs, back to back to back starts for the 14-time major winner who is still trying to get back to something resembling a regular PGA Tour schedule. He stands an excellent chance of making the Tour Championship at East Lake; an incredible result for a player who has not made a playoff start since the 2013 season.

His driving accuracy has been significantly improving as the year has progressed, and the rest of his game has been on: he is currently 4th on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green, 9th in strokes gained: around-the-green, 9th in scoring average, and 5th in strokes gained: total. There is a lot to like about his chances over the next four weeks.

5. Ryder Cup Implications

Excitement for the FedExCup Playoffs is superseded only by that of the Ryder Cup, which takes place in Paris shortly after the conclusion of the Tour Championship. The American Team finally took back the cup in 2016, and a very talented European squad is desperate to take it back. It has the looks of one of the most evenly-matched Ryder Cups in a long time.

Justin Thomas The Northern Trust
Justin Thomas tees off at the 10th hole during the third round of The Northern Trust at Glen Oaks GC in Old Westbury, NY on Aug. 26, 2017. Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

However, the teams are not quite set. On the American side, eight players are locked into the roster; those who had accumulated the most Ryder Cup points over the two-year span. Those players are as follows:

Brooks Koepka
Dustin Johnson
Justin Thomas
Patrick Reed
Bubba Watson
Jordan Spieth
Rickie Fowler
Webb Simpson

That list features a great deal of experience, with all eight having played on at least one prior Ryder Cup team.

However, there are 12 spots total, and it is up to American Ryder Cup Captain Jim Furyk to determine who those other four players will be. Three of the four “captain’s picks” are due after the second round of the FedExCup Playoffs, with the final pick due after the third round, meaning that the candidates have a tremendous amount of motivation to play well in the playoffs.

The qualification process leaves open the chance that somebody unexpected could get hot and make a late case for the team, but going into The Northern Trust, there are seven players that are generally accepted as those vying for the four remaining spots. In order of Ryder Cup points (which are no longer being accumulated) those seven are Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Xander Schauffele, Matt Kuchar, Kevin Kisner, and Tony Finau.

Xander Schauffele
Xander Schauffele reacts after making birdie on 18th hole during day three of the Open Championship at Carnoustie GC on July 21, 2018 in Carnoustie, Scotland. Photo by Ross Kinnaird/R&A via Getty Images

The belief is that Tiger’s spot is safe. He has played extremely well as of late, has a great deal of experience, and still has an enormous intimidation factor. Mickelson, who has been on more American Ryder Cup teams than anyone in history, is believed to be very likely for a spot as well, but not playing quite as well as Tiger, he may not be a “lock”. After Phil, it gets tough.

DeChambeau, Schauffele, and Finau, while all young and very talented, have never been on a Ryder or Presidents Cup team, which makes them risky picks. Matt Kuchar has played in four of both, so he brings an experience factor, and is also a strong character from a team aspect, but he is not having a strong season by his standards, and he historically played the singles events poorly. Kisner would also be a Ryder Cup rookie, but he played well on last year’s Presidents Cup squad, and is an elite putter. With Kisner, however, there are concerns about how well he can close.

Each of the seven had a great case for their inclusion. Regardless, the next three weeks should play an enormous role in Furyk’s decision. Everybody wants to be on that team, so the competition could get fierce.

Joel Cook

Joel Cook is Pro Golf Weekly's Lead Writer. He is a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America.

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