Pro Golf Weekly

5 Storylines: Tour Championship

Just one event remains in the 2018 PGA Tour season, and the stakes are enormous. The top 30 players in the year-long FedExCup Standings comprise the exclusive field at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia, for the Tour Championship with a FedExCup Championship and a $10 million prize check on the line. In addition, there are myriad exemptions and a tremendous amount of prestige.

There are many great storylines in the field this week, here are five of the best:

1. Top 5 Take FedExCup With Win

The FedExCup Playoffs could have gotten completely out of hand. With Bryson DeChambeau taking the first two legs of the playoffs, picking up a gaudy 4000 points in the process, and with 5789 points on the year, 1400 more points than second place Justin Rose, he would nearly have the Cup locked up under the oldest rules.

Bryson DeChambeau
Bryson DeChambeau holds the trophy after winning the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston on Sep. 3, 2018 in Norton, Mass. Photo by Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

Fortunately for everyone except for DeChambeau, the Tour Championship brings a points reset. Bryson still holds the No. 1 spot, but at 2000 points, he leads Rose by just 200, and the entire field still has a mathematical chance of winning. In fact, it is set up in a way where if any of the top 5 in the current standings wins at East Lake, that player automatically wins the FedExCup Championship. After the top 5, the winner at East Lake needs more and more help from the field.

Here is that current top five, all holding an enormous advantage getting to control their own destiny:

1. Bryson DeChambeau
The playoffs have been all about the 25-year-old ultimate student of the game, who won the first two events and finished T19 at the BMW Championship. He now has three victories on the season, and a fourth would make him $10 million richer. Not bad for a player whose credentials to be a potential Ryder Cup Captain’s Pick were being questioned just a month ago.

2. Justin Rose
Rose inexcusably missed a short par putt on the first extra hole at Aronimink to finish second to Keegan Bradley, but in the process, Rose reached the No. 1 position in the Official World Golf Rankings for the first time in his career. Rose will be playing for the first time as No. 1 coming off consecutive runner-up finishes, and he has been the world’s most consistently great golfer over the past 12 months. He has two victories among his 10 top 10s on Tour this season, in addition to success overseas.

3. Tony Finau
Finau does not have a victory on the 2018 season, but by going 2-T4-T8 in the three playoff events, he gets to control his own destiny at East Lake. Finau, who was named as America’s final Ryder Cup Captain’s Pick after Aronimink, has a PGA Tour co-leading 11 top 10s on the season. He has yet to shoot an over-par round in the playoffs.

4. Dustin Johnson
There are some concerns about personal off-course issues perhaps distracting the man who has been No. 1 in the world for most of the year, but he has generally done well in the past at putting that noise behind him, at least in non-majors. Johnson is in the midst of another three win season, and his next will be No. 20 of his career. He has gone T11-T7-T24 in the playoffs, scoring best on his Sundays.

5. Justin Thomas
With a victory at East Lake, Thomas would win the FedExCup Championship for the second consecutive year, becoming the first to successfully defend. He won last year’s Cup despite not winning the Tour Championship, but he was runner-up at East Lake, a course he already has an impressive record at. Thomas has three wins on the season, with the most recent coming in early August at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.


2. Schauffele Defends

East Lake is a difficult course, as evidenced by the average winning scores in the -8 to -12 range, but then Tour rookie Xander Schauffele showed that it can be conquered without a ton of experience, as he put on a shot-making clinic to hold off Justin Thomas and that the tournament title. It was the second win of the season for the easy PGA Tour Rookie of the Year choice. In victory, the stage never looked too big, and his composure sent a powerful message to the rest of the golf world.

Justin Thomas (L) and Xander Schauffele
Justin Thomas (L) and Xander Schauffele pose with trophies after winning the FedExCup and TOUR Championship, respectively, at East Lake GC on Sep. 24, 2017 in Atlanta, GA. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Being the defending champion did not guarantee Schauffele a spot in this year’s field, and for the season straight season, he played himself into the Tour Championship at the previous playoff event, the BMW Open. Sitting at 41st in the FedExCup Standings coming into Aronimink, a torrid 63-64 start lead to a T3 finish that got him into the 18th position, where he currently stands.

That phenomenal victory at East Lake last year was surprisingly the most recent for the 24-year-old, who has had a solid sophomore campaign on the Tour, but is yet to land back in the winner’s circle. He has six top 10s in 26 events on the season, with his best results being runner-up finishes at THE PLAYERS Championship and the Open Championship, high finishes that have further cemented his status as one of the Tour’s premiere big-game players.

Schauffele will need a victory and help to beat his overall third place in last year’s final FedExCup Standings, but nobody should be betting against him. At Aronimink, he tallied just four bogeys for the entire week (one in each round), hit 82% of his fairways, and finished second in the field in strokes gained: putting. If he performs similarly at East Lake, he coudl very well become the tournament’s first back-to-back champion.


3. Tiger’s Last Stand?

Arguably the biggest golf story of 2018 has been the comeback of 79-win Tour legend Tiger Woods, who had missed all of 2017 recovering from spinal fusion surgery. With one tournament left to go on the season, Tiger’s year has to be considered a massive success; he has stayed healthy and contended in several events despite the challenge of getting used to his new body.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods on the putting green prior to the final round of The Northern Trust at The Ridgewood CC in Paramus, NJ on Aug. 26, 2018. Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

He might not NEED it, but one thing missing from Tiger’s valliant comeback season: a victory. Tiger has six top-10s in 17 events on the season, with runner-ups at the Valspar Championship, and much more notably, the PGA Championship.

The Tour Championship, which Tiger is playing for the first time in five years, provides one more chance for him to notch a victory that would set the whole sports world ablaze. Considering everything, it would be the win of the year.

Tiger came into the FedExCup Playoffs feeling good after that solo-second to Brooks Koepka at Bellerive, but underwhelmed in the first two rounds, finishing T40 at The Northern Trust and T24 at the Dell Technologies Championship. However, an opening 62 at the BMW Championship, in which he was briefly on 59 watch, led to a T6 and locked up his spot in East Lake.

At No. 20 in the FedExCup Standings, Tiger would need to win the Tour Championship and get a lot of help to take the FedExCup, but it is mathematically possible, depending on the performances of those currently in the top six. It might be a long shot, but it should not be forgotten that Bill Haas took the 2011 title from the 25th spot. It can happen.


4. MVP Race

The major championships are everything in the golf world, so it would stand to reason that a player who won 50% of them this year would be nearly assured of winning the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year award. To many, it would be considered a waste of time to make an argument for anyone other than U.S. Open and PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka, but with one week left in the season, and one really big resume addition up for grabs, there are a few players who could make the race interesting.

Brooks Koepka Wins 2018 U.S. Open
Brooks Koepka celebrates with caddie Ricky Elliott after winning the U.S. Open at Shinnecock GC in Southampton, NY on June 17, 2018. Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The biggest debate would ensue if Bryson DeChambeau were to win the Tour Championship, which would also give him the FedExCup title. The 25-year-old DeChambeau would then have four victories on the season, with three coming against elite playoff fields. The fourth, which happened at The Memorial Tournament in early June, was also against one of the better non-major fields.

The big argument against DeChambeau would be that he was irrelevant in the major season, but could the rest of his resume close the gap over Koepka? There is no real objective tool for ruling in either direction, although the man with the two majors would still probably take the award.

Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, and Bubba Watson would also have four wins on the season if they take the Tour Championship. Thomas would clinch a second straight FedExCup title with a win, and a victory would also mean a Cup Championship for Johnson, while Watson, currently ranked 8th in the standings, would need a little bit of help from DeChambeau and Justin Rose. However, none of those three players will be able to say they won a major this year. It could end up being a very interesting debate.


5. Ryder Cup Form

This week’s golf spotlight shines on Atlanta, but the second that last putt at East Lake drops, the attention of the sports world will be frenetically zoned in on Le Golf National, in golf-hungry Paris, France for the 2018 edition of the Ryder Cup.

Bryson DeChambeau Phil Mickelson
Bryson DeChambeau shakes hands with Phil Mickelson during a press conference at the Philadelphia Marriott West on Sep. 4, 2018 in West Conshohocken, PA. Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The upcoming edition of the Ryder Cup appears to be one of the most intriguing in years, as the talent is prodigious on both sides, as the European side attempts to snag back the trophy they lost in Minnesota two years ago.

Neither of the two captains, Jim Furyk for the Americans, nor Thomas Bjorn for the Europeans, came anywhere close to reaching the FedExCup Playoff’s Tour Championship, but both will have a close eye on East Lake as they ponder their strategy for next week. Both teams have players at East Lake this week who have not been on their A games as of late, and are desperate to carry some momentum to France.

Most notably for the Americans, 48-year-old 11-time Ryder Cupper Phil Mickelson is looking to rediscover the magic that got his season off to such a hot start. Since winning the WGC-Mexico Championship in March, Mickelson has just one top 10. He failed to qualify automatically for the first time in his career, but his experience made him a somewhat easy Captain’s Pick for Furyk. However, with his recent struggles, there are whispers that perhaps Mickelson did not earn that confidence, which likely does not sit well with the five-time major champion. He got his playoffs off to a strong start with a T15 and a T12, but he was absolutely abysmal over the first two rounds at the BMW Championship, sitting in dead last before improving to T58 over the weekend.

There should be little doubt that Patrick Reed will bring it for the Americans next week, as his superb play in recent Ryder Cups has earned him the nickname “Captain America”. That being said, Reed’s game has not been trending in the right direction.

A breakthrough major victory at The Masters was the highlight of Reed’s seven top-10s before the start of July, but in his seven starts since a fourth-place finish at the U.S. Open, Reed’s best performance was just a T19 at last week’s BMW Championship.

The European team has fewer players in the East Lake field, but there are similar concerns about Captain’s Pick Paul Casey, who has been in a tailspin since blowing a large Sunday lead at June’s Travelers Championship, and young Spanish star Jon Rahm, who has gone a disappointing CUT-T43-T24 in the playoffs.

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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