With two events down, and two to go, in the 2018 FedExCup Playoffs, 70 players are still alive for the $10 million prize, even though it’s been a one-man show so far.
Bryson DeChambeau remains the best bet to win, but with players like Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, and Phil Mickelson on his heels, he certainly can not get too comfortable.
The third leg of the playoffs takes the best of the PGA Tour to Philadelphia for the 2018 BMW Championship, where the notoriously difficult Aronimink Golf Club plays host.
While 70 player will enter Philadelphia, only 30 will advance to East Lake for next week’s Tour Championship, the finale of an enthralling 2018 season.
Despite an abbreviated field, there are many intriguing storylines this week. Here are six of the better ones:
1. Leishman Defends
Coming into last year’s BMW Championship at Conway Farms Golf Club in the Chicago area, Marc Leishman was both encouraged and dejected. He had played very well at the previous week’s Dell Technologies Championship, finishing solo-third, but he had also squandered a lead coming down the stretch, missing a shot at what would have been his second victory of the 2017 season.
Showing a great deal of mental toughness, Leishman was able to shake off his disappointing finish from the week prior, and thrashed the BMW field by a five-stroke margin over Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler. Leishman was especially hot early in the week, opening the tournament with sizzling rounds of 62 and 64. His 23-under final score set the tournament record, and moved him into one of the much-coveted top-five spots at East Lake.
Coming into the BMW this year, however, it’s a different story for Leishman. The 34-year-old started the year out well, with six top-10s in his first 14 events, including two runner-up finishes. Since the latter of those second-place finishes, where he was outdueled on Sunday by 21-year-old Aaron Wise at the AT&T Byron Nelson, Leishman has gone ice cold. In nine starts since, he is without a top 10, and owns just just two top 30s.
In the big events, he was completely invisible, posting a T63 at THE PLAYERS, a T45 at the U.S. Open, a solo-60 at the Open Championship, and a T71 at the PGA Championship. With a number of close calls in majors in the past, Leishman expected to be much more competitive on that stage.
The Aussie opened the playoffs with a T34 at The Northern Trust, but was better at last week’s Dell Technologies Championship, finishing T21 – although his final round was disappointing.
In his Monday finale, he bogeyed both front-nine par 5s and ended up shooting an even-par 71 to drop nine spots down the leaderboard. At TPC Boston, he finished in the top 5 in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation, but his short game was abysmal. He finished 55th in strokes gained: approach-the-green and 56th in strokes gained: putting. The former was a surprise, since he was 21st on Tour this year around-the-green.
Largely off the strength of his early season work, Leishman still sits in a favorable spot to make the Tour Championship, currently at No. 22.
2. Positioning for East Lake
In the first leg of the FedExCup playoffs, 20% (25 of 125) of the field was eliminated. In the second series, that number rose to 30% (30 of 100). Now, with just one playoff event until the Tour Championship at East Lake, this week’s BMW Championship will eliminate 57% of the players (40 of 70) in the field.
The Tour Championship offers another huge payday, along with serious prestige and a $10 million bonus to the points winner. Add in all the exemptions and perks that come with being one of the final 30 invited to Atlanta, and it’s easy to understand why players are constantly talking about “making it to East Lake.”
Coming into the BMW, here is the current top-30 bubble for the Tour Championship:
No. 25 – Tiger Woods (1,342)
No. 26 – Rickie Fowler (1,302)
No. 27 – Jordan Spieth (1,299)
No. 28 – Hideki Matsuyama (1,271)
No. 29 – Emiliano Grillo (1,252)
No. 30 – Gary Woodland (1,205)
No. 31 – Chez Reavie (1,184)
No. 32 – Brandt Snedeker (1,174)
No. 33 – C.T. Pan (1,170)
No. 34 – Pat Perez (1,167)
No. 35 – Andrew Landry (1,145)
Other notables currently on the wrong side of the East Lake top-070 cut include Kevin Kisner (39), Xander Schauffele (41), Ian Poulter (45), Adam Scott (48), Keegan Bradley (52), Zach Johnson (59), and Henrik Stenson (60).
In each of the past three seasons, four players have moved from outside the top 30 to inside, so those on north side of the bubble are likely feeling nervous. With quadruple points, there is the potential for a lot of movement, and even No. 70 Ted Potter Jr has a legitimate shot of making the Tour Championship.
Last year, the four players who moved into the top 30 were ranked 32nd, 34th, 39th, and 41st respectively. The highest ranked player coming into the week who moved out of the top 30 was Louis Oosthuizen, who came into the week at No. 24, and slipped below the cut, despite playing the weekend 9-under par. Oosthuizen has an even tougher task this year, as his No. 69 ranking means he needs a very high finish this week.
It is not the top 30 bubble that is important, however. The players occupying the top-5 positions at East Lake get an enormous advantage: control of their destiny. Points are re-set after this week in a way where any player in that top 5 automatically wins the FedExCup with a victory at the Tour Championship. With one week to go, here is that current top 5:
No. 1. Bryson DeChambeau
No. 2. Dustin Johnson
No. 3. Justin Rose
No. 4. Tony Finau
No. 5. Justin Thomas
Nipping on Thomas’ heels include Brooks Koepka (6), Bubba Watson (7), Cameron Smith (8), Phil Mickelson (9), and Jason Day (10). Of those ten names mentioned, only 2017 Champion Thomas has won the FedExCup before, meaning the top of the standings include a lot of players who will be highly motivated to add another significant accomplishment to their resumes.
3. Who Can Beat DeChambeau?
If we have learned anything in the past two weeks, it is that Bryson DeChambeau is an elite player. It should not be shocking, as he was a stud as an amateur and has flashed incredible talent, but after winning back-to-back FedExCup playoff events, both by multiple strokes, we know that he is no longer an up-and-comer, he is a here-now world-class star.
It seems crazy that the big debate just two weeks ago was whether DeChambeau even deserved a spot on the American Ryder Cup team. He was coming off a WD-T51-30-CUT and had finished in the ninth spot on the Ryder Cup standings, with just the top 8 qualifying automatically.
Many pundits were predicting he’d be passed over, due to his inexperience in team events, and concerns about how he his personality would mesh with the others. Now, he would seem to be a lock for the team, and might be part of a fascinating duo with close friend Tiger Woods.
Largely as a result of the 4,000 FedExCup points he has accumulated over those two playoff wins, DeChambeau has locked up the No. 1 spot in the FedExCup Standings for the Tour Championship. Points reset after this week, and any of the top 5 can win the Cup with a victory at East Lake, but the No. 1 position is still an enormous advantage that gives DeChambeau the best chance at the $10 million prize if the event champion comes from outside that top 5.
Statistically, DeChambeau does not seem to have a weakness: he is driving it great; he is hitting his irons and wedges just pure; and his once-shaky putting has improved by leaps and bounds.
If he does not become the first player in postseason history to win three-straight events, it will most likely because somebody just played better, not because he didn’t perform well enough.
Aronimink is a tougher course than past BMW venues, and will probably prohibit any kind of shootout, which could help the field since DeChambeau has been a birdie machine as of late. With his all-around game, though, the California native should remain a huge threat, no matter the venue.
4. Tiger Tales
After his 24th place finish at last week’s Dell Technologies Championship, Tiger Woods declined to speak to the media. That is considered notable because it was the first time this year he has done that.
It certainly was not a strong Sunday for Tiger, at least not for the latter portion of the day. After shooting 66-68 in the middle rounds, he had gotten himself within six strokes of the lead going into Sunday. He kept the good play going, reaching a bogey-free 3-under through 11 holes.
However, like a lot of the field, the back nine at TPC Boston got the best of Tiger as he failed to card a single birdie while adding a bogey on No. 14 and a double bogey on the 16th en route to a disappointing even-par 71. He did hit 15 of 18 greens on Sunday, but his proximity was poor – which is a key to scoring well at the Norton, Mass. track. And as it has at several times this season, his putter let him down on the closing holes.
A T40-T24 playoff stretch has taken a little of the momentum away that he had built with three top-10s in four events coming into the playoffs. That included a T6 at The Open Championship, and a solo runner-up finish at the PGA Championship.
Playing in his first FedExCup Playoff since 2013, Tiger easily made the BMW Championship. At No. 25 in the standings, he stands an excellent chance of making the Tour Championship, but that is by no means a sure thing. He will likely need at least a decent showing in Philadelphia to lock up his position at East Lake.
5. Ryder Cup Claims
Coming into the FedExCup Playoffs, one of the biggest stories was the fillout of the American Ryder Cup roster. The top eight in points after the Wyndham Championship had qualified automatically, with the captain’s picks due later.
Well, later has finally arrived for three of those four picks; captain Jim Furyk will be naming them at 5pm on Tuesday. While Furyk has not said much, it will be considered shocking if those three players are not Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Bryson DeChambeau.
Tiger and Phil were considered near-locks coming in, and DeChambeau has won the last two playoff events. Easy, peasy for Jim Furyk.
Still, there is one spot remaining, which is due after the conclusion of the BMW Championship. The feeling is that Tony Finau is in the driver’s seat for that final pick, and for good reason: he has 10 top-10s on the season and has gone 2-T4 in the past two weeks, both playoff events. Finau himself said he believes he has made it difficult for Furyk to not pick him.
That being said, there is no specific criteria of how Furyk has to make his pick; he can take anyone he thinks would give the Americans the best chance in Paris. Or for any other reason.
Regardless, if somebody is going to usurp Finau for that final pick, that player will likely have to be exceptional at Aronimink this week. That would seem to take four-time Ryder Cup veteran Matt Kuchar out of the mix, as he was eliminated from the FedExCup this past week.
Kevin Kisner has a shot, due to his stellar short game and strong performance at last year’s Presidents Cup, but his results have been lacking as of late. Same goes for Xander Schauffele, who has two victories in the point-accumulating period and has a propensity for showing up big in the big events, but Furyk might find it difficult to take him with his recent mediocre stretch of play.
Whoever they take, it should be less painstaking of a decision than what European Captain Thomas Bjorn has to make. His four captain’s picks – to be made on Wednesday – are considered very much in the air right now. Players in the running include: Henrik Stenson, Paul Casey, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia, Matt Wallace, Thomas Pieters, and Eddie Pepperell.
6. Rickie Returns
Over the two weeks of the FedExCup Playoffs, the most notable omission has been that of the popular Rickie Fowler, who has been resting an oblique injury. The injury came to light at the PGA Championship, where he opened with a 65 and finished T12. Since he was playing well, it was a bit of a surprise that the 29-year-old Oklahoma State product had to withdraw the past two weeks.
Fowler has not won in 2018, but he currently ranks 26th in the FedExCup standings. That gives him a good chance of making it to East Lake for the fifth time, but he is too close to the bubble to get comfortable. He would miss the Tour Championship if he gets passed by five players, and over the past three years, four players have played themselves into East Lake from outside that top 30.
A T8 at the Memorial Tournament is Fowler’s only top 10 since he finished runner-up to Patrick Reed at The Masters. He has been in the mix at a number of tournaments, and remains in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Rankings, but he was likely disappointed to go 0-for again in majors, keeping his status as the best player in the world without a major championship.
If he can get hot over the next two weeks, he can add a FedExCup Championship to his resume, which would certainly look nice for the man who leaves his 20s in mid-December.