5 Storylines to Follow at the BMW Championship

Rory McIlroy reacts to his shot from the 12th tee as Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods on during the second round of the 2020 PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park on Aug 7, 2020 in San Francisco, Calif. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

A machete was taken to the FedExCup Standings at least week’s The Northern Trust, with the bottom 55 among 125 participants seeing their seasons come to an end. The 70 remaining still have hopes of landing the richest prize in professional sports: the $15 million FedExCup Championship.

This week’s second playoff event is the BMW Championship, and will be held at a site unfamiliar to most of the field: Olympia Fields Golf Club, outside of Chicago, which last hosted the PGA Tour in 2003 with Jim Furyk taking the U.S. Open.

After this week, the top 70 will get cut down to the top 30 for the Tour Championship, held at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.

Here is what to look for this week in a loaded event:


1. JT Defends

Justin Thomas
Justin Thomas celebrates after a chip-in birdie on the 14th hole during the third round of the BMW Championship at Medinah CC No. 3 on Aug 17, 2019 in Medinah, IL. Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At last year’s BMW Championship, held at former Ryder Cup host Medinah Country Club, Justin Thomas torched the field on Saturday, using a third-round 11-under 61 to open up a four-shot lead going into Sunday. He was barely challenged in the final round, and he cruised to a three-shot victory over Patrick Cantlay. As a result, Thomas began the Tour Championship in the top position, an enormous advantage in the first year of the new format.

That triumph at Medinah was the 10th victory of Thomas’s still young career. A year later, the 27-year-old is up to 13 career victories, something only Jack and Tiger have done quicker. The three 2020 season wins comprised The CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges, the Sentry Tournament of Champions, and more recently, the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational three weeks ago. That win in Memphis got him back to No. 1 in the world rankings, although he has been passed since by Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm.

Thomas’ prodigious 2020 season is also highlighted by nine top 10s in just 16 starts, which has him at No. 2 in the FedExCup standings going into Olympic Fields. This is not unfamiliar territory for the Alabama product, who held the top position going into last year’s Tour Championship, and he won the entire FedExCup in 2017.

At the moment, Thomas is in the closest things resembling a slump that he has had this year. After winning the WGC-FedEx St. Jude, Thomas finished T37 at the PGA Championship, and then T49 at last week’s The Northern Trust, shooting an even-par 71 in both his weekend rounds. It is the first time all year that the former PGA Championship winner has failed to notch a top 8 finish in back-to-back weeks.

Leading the Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, his game translates to any course, and it would be shocking if he fails to contend for a third straight week.


2. Bubble Watch: Top 30 Advance

Billy Horschel
Billy Horschel reacts on the 16th green during the second round of the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale on Feb 1, 2019 in Scottsdale, AZ. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The cuts were a little more progressive when there were four FedExCup playoff events, but since last year’s change to just three, 55 players saw their seasons end at last week’s The Northern Trust. Among the more notable were Phil Mickelson, Harold Varner III, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, and Shane Lowry.

This week, the field gets cut by more than 50% as the top 70 becomes the top 30 for the Tour Championship at famed East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Here is the current top 30 bubble:

Current Bubble:
25. Cameron Champ (951)
26. Cameron Smith (936)
27. Adam Long (934)
28. Kevin Streelman (923)
29. Tony Finau (907)
30. Billy Horschel (893)
—————————————–
31. Joaquin Niemann (878)
32. Tyler Duncan (806)
33. Matthew Wolff (771)
34. Mark Hubbard (771)
35. Byeong Hun An (765)

Other Notables Outside Bubble:
37. Patrick Cantlay (745)
38. Adam Scott (741)
39. Gary Woodland (741)
50. Jason Day (653)
55. Matt Kuchar (631)
57. Tiger Woods (620)
58. Bubba Watson (618)
64. Paul Casey (580)
70. Louis Oosthuizen (520)

Just three players went from outside the top 30 to inside last year: Hideki Matsuyama (33 to 15), Lucas Glover (41 to 29), and Jason Kokrak (32 to 30).

And that is just for the bubble. Even those solidly in the East Lake field will be battling for position. Under the rules, the more FedExCup points a player has going into the finale, the lower score they get to start at. As of now, Dustin Johnson would begin at 10-under, while whoever gets the 30th spot starts at even par.


3. Dominant DJ

Dustin Johnson Wins THE NORTHERN TRUST at TPC Boston
Dustin Johnson plays his shot from the ninth tee during the final round of The Northern Trust at TPC Boston on Aug 23, 2020 in Norton, Mass. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Fans who appreciate true domination were magnetized to their TV screens last week, as Dustin Johnson obliterated a stacked field at The Northern Trust, to the tune of an 11-stroke victory, the largest margin of victory seen on Tour since Phil Mickelson took the 2006 BellSouth Classic by 13.

DJ’s 22nd career PGA Tour victory was his most impressive, and tied him with Hall of Famer Raymond Floyd for 27th on the all-time list. After a so-so 4-under 67 in the first round, Johnson had THE round on Friday. Reaching 11-under through 11 holes, Johnson was in position to obliterate the all-time single-round scoring record, but then proceeded to par each of his last seven holes.

An 11-under 60 was still immensely impressive, but the ending did leave a “what if?” feel to it. Johnson then played his weekend 64-63, looking like he was playing an entirely different game with his irons. It was a shotmaking clinic that had no match.

With last week’s win, DJ elevated to No. 1 in both the FedExCup Standings, and the Official World Golf Rankings. While a lot of players would see a hangover in the event following such a curb-stomping, Johnson has a history of stringing great results together. He somehow went 80-80 and missed the cut at Muirfield Village after winning the Travelers Championship in June, but before that, he had followed up his last ten wins with finishes of T5, T3, 3, T2, T18, 1st, 1st, T6, T9, 1st respectively. He can get hot, and stay hot.

Helping the field this week is that Johnson has never played Olympia Fields competitively. Still, nobody will be coming in more confident, and Johnson is the betting favorite to win and to reach East Lake in the top position.

Winning a FedExCup is one of the few things DJ has yet to do in his career, with his best finish being 2nd in 2016. Johnson is a two-time winner of the BMW Championship, taking the 2010 edition at Cog Hill and the 2016 event at Crooked Stick. He has been surprisingly poor in this tournament the past three years, with finishes of T57, T24, and T33 respectively.


4. Tiger Still In The Picture

Tiger Woods THE NORTHERN TRUST at TPC Boston
Tiger Woods of the United States walks across the 10th green during the final round of The Northern Trust at TPC Boston on Aug 23, 2020 in Norton, Mass. Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

A strange reality of the COVID-era PGA Tour is the lack of gallery following every move of Tiger Woods. Without the enormous fanfare, at least in person, the 15-time major champion has seen his recent slip. In three events since play resumed, he finished T40 at The Memorial, T37 at the PGA Championship, and T58 at last week’s The Northern Trust. He struggled early at TPC Boston, but did finish in encouraging fashion, shooting a Sunday 5-under 66 that included 16 of 18 greens being hit in regulation.

So, what is to be made of Tiger’s chances this week at Olympia Fields? A two-time BMW Champion (2007, 2009), Woods comes into the week at 57th in the FedExCup standings, meaning he will need a great week to make the Tour Championship field, an event where he was a surprise winner two years ago. The world No. 16 would break a tie with Sam Snead atop the all-time PGA Tour victories list if he is able to claim victory at the BMW. Tiger finished T20 when the U.S. Open was held at Olympia Fields in 2003.

On the season, Tiger has two top-10s in six starts, including a victory at October’s ZOZO Championship. He was also undeniably the MVP for the winning American team at December’s Presidents Cup, an event where he was both a player and the captain. This will be his third start in the past four weeks, which is always touchy given his notoriously bad back. If it holds though, he has proven his worth in this format, winning the FedExCup in 2007 and 2009.


5. What’s Wrong With Rory?

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy plays a shot from the second tee during the final round of the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 16, 2019 in Pebble Beach, CA. Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Shockingly missing from recent leaderboards has been four-time major champion and defending FedExCup Champion Rory McIlroy, who has been dreadful since the Tour returned for its three-month COVID layoff. Prior to the layoff, 31-year-old had been on fire with six straight top-5 finishes, including a win at the WGC-HSBC Champions in November. He went into the layoff at No. 1 in the world rankings.

But since play resumed? A T11 at the RBC Heritage is his only top 30 in seven starts. He was a complete non-factor at the PGA Championship, an event he has won twice, and finished T65 at last week’s The Northern Trust. For the week at TPC Boston, he lost 6.5 strokes to the field on the greens alone. He ranks fourth on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green and fifth in scoring average, but putting has again become an issue, as he ranks 139th in strokes gained: putting.

Nobody doubts how great Rory is at his best, but when can we expect to see his best again? He has dropped to 11th in the standings, and he will need to find that form soon if he wants to become the first player with three FedExCup Champions and the first to win in back-to-back seasons.

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