Nothing about this year’s PGA Tour has been standard, a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which ceased play for three months from March to June. However, there is something resembling a return to normalcy this week, as the FedExCup playoffs return, and at roughly the same time as it has been in the past.
This will be the second year since the Tour ditched the traditional four-week playoff in favor of a three-week version, culminating with the unusual new dynamic of the Tour Championship, with the Cup standings leader beginning the last event ahead of the pack. The pressure should be palpable, even if there will still be no fans allowed on the grounds.
This year’s The Northern Trust will be held at TPC Boston, which has most recently hosted the Dell Technologies Championship, a playoff event that was axed when the format changed to three tournaments. Among the most intriguing storylines are the following:
1. 70 Tickets To Chicago
The top 125 players from the 30-plus week grind that began 11 months ago were rewarded with a spot in the field at The Northern Trust, the first event of an extremely lucrative three-week playoff.
However, despite all the work they put into an unprecedented season, 55 of those 125 players will see their season end at the conclusion of the tournament. The top 70 still standing will advance to the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club, just outside of Chicago.
Going into The Northern Trust, here’s a look at the current BMW Championship bubble:
66. Bubba Watson (489)
67. Phil Mickelson (488)
68. Henrik Norlander (483)
69. Brian Harman (480)
70. Xinjun Zhang (474)
71. Sepp Straka (466)
72. Harry Higgs (465)
73. Harold Varner III (457)
74. Bud Cauley (443)
75. Vaughn Taylor (442)
At last year’s Northern Trust, the first season since the Tour cut the playoffs from four events to three, just four players were able to move from outside the top 70 to inside: Harold Varner III (102nd to 29th), Troy Merritt (72nd to 59th), Wyndham Clark (90th to 68th), and Joaquin Niemann (74th to 70th).
Notable players needing a great week at TPC Boston to move on to Chicago include Ian Poulter (85th), Rickie Fowler (88th), Tommy Fleetwood (89th), Brooks Koepka (97th), Brandt Snedeker (98th), Jordan Spieth (100th), Zach Johnson (104th), Justin Rose (109th), and Shane Lowry (122nd).
Most surprising among that group is Koepka, who was on the outside looking in before a T2 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, the week before he attempted to become the first player since the mid-50s to win the same major three years in a row.
To the shock of no one, Koepka again got himself into the major championship mix, but he was uncharacteristically poor on Sunday, shooting a 2-over 74 and dropping all the way to T29. This is unchartered territory for him as he works to get his season back on track.
2. Major Morikawa Debuts
The Northern Trust comes on the heels of the PGA Championship, contested two weeks ago at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing a three-month layoff, massive rescheduling resulted in that tournament being the first, and so far only, major championship played in the 2020 season.
For the most part, the players did not look out of practice on the major stage. The Sunday leaderboard was absolutely stacked and at one point late in the day, seven players were tied for the lead. For a time, the most epic playoff in the major history looked very much a possibility.
The player to emerge from that logjam was California wunderkind Collin Morikawa, whose 65-64 weekend was the lowest for a winner in major championship history. Morikawa accomplished the impressive feat in spite of the fact that he was playing in his first PGA Championship and just his second major overall.
The PGA Championship more or less birthed Morikawa’s legend, or at the very least, accelerated the heck out of it. In just his second season on Tour after a wildly successful nine-start rookie year, he already has three wins, which is two more than the number of missed cuts he has in only 27 professional starts.
Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly given everything else he has done, Morikawa does have FedExCup playoff experience, as his win at last year’s Barracuda Championship gave him Tour membership and allowed the Cup points he’d accumulated over just seven starts to count towards the overall standings, matching a feat most famously accomplished by Jordan Spieth during his 2013 rookie season. He finished T52 at The Northern Trust, which was good enough to get him into the BMW Championship, where his season ended on a T48.
This year, he comes into the playoffs at No. 2 in the standings, and is a lock for the Tour Championship at East Lake. He has been tremendous during the entire course of the 2020 season, but has hit another level since Tour play resumed in June.
At the first event back, the Charles Schwab Challenge, he finished runner-up reaching a playoff with Daniel Berger that he lost on a stunning missed putt from three feet out. He then reached another playoff at the Workday Charity Classic, making up a three-stroke deficit on Tour heavyweight Justin Thomas with just three holes to play, this time winning on the third playoff hole. He was extremely close to having three wins in seven starts post layoff.
Now at No. 5 in the world rankings, Morikawa has a path to the No. 1 position at TPC Boston this week when he tees up for the first time as a major champion. It is not unusual for a player to suffer a hangover of sorts after their major breakthrough, as we saw last season with U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland, but little about Collins’ career has been usual. It would be a much bigger surprise if he is not part of the leaderboard picture this week.
3. Tiger In Boston
The TV ratings for The Northern Trust will get a big boost this week as Tiger Woods, the 2007 and 2009 FedExCup champion, committed to the event. Tiger is currently 49th in the standings, with the biggest chunk of his FedExCup points coming from an October triumph at the inaugural Zozo Championship. He and Rory McIlroy are the only players to have won the FedExCup twice.
The current state of the 15-time major championships game is anyone’s guess. Tiger has played in just two events since the COVID layoff: a T40 at The Memorial Tournament and a T37 at the PGA Championship. He had an underwhelming week at TPC Harding Park – at times looking completely overwhelmed on the greens, but he did close in promising fashion, shooting a Sunday 3-under 67.
Tiger’s had considerable success at TPC Boston in the past, winning the 2006 Deutsche Bank Championship and finishing runner-up in 2004 and 2007. That 2007 stands out as being a rare time that Phil Mickelson and Tiger finished a tournament 1-2.
In his most recent attempt, he was T24 when the course hosted the 2018 Dell Technologies Championship, which he then parlayed into a T6 at the BMW and a stunning victory at the Tour Championship.
As usual, Tiger’s chances are likely to come down to how well his notoriously troublesome back holds up. If he is to land in the winner’s circle, it will have been the 83rd time he has done so on the PGA Tour, which would allow him to pass the legendary Sam Snead atop the list of all-time PGA Tour victories. He is basically the ultimate wildcard, just as likely to win as he is to miss the cut entirely.
4. Reed DefendsAt last year’s The Northern Trust, former Masters Champion Patrick Reed survived a frantic closing stretch, carding birdies on two of his final five holes to reach 16-under for the week, winning by one over Abraham Ancer and two over Harold Varner III and Jon Rahm. The controversial golfer was amazingly consistent, with five birdies in each of his four rounds, and leading the field was just four bogeys. It was the seventh victory of his career.
Probably more relevant to his chances this week, as last year’s Northern Trust was held at Liberty National, Reed was T35 at the 2018 Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston, but had finished T4, T5, and then T6 in his three previous attempts respectively. That is a good sign for him, hitting that combination of strong course history and recent season success. He comes into the playoffs at sixth in the FedExCup standings.
Since that Northern Trust triumph, Reed has added another victory: the 2020 WGC-Mexico Championship where a pair of weekend 67s allowed him to finish one stroke ahead of Bryson DeChambeau. On the season, he has seven top 10s in 17 starts, with three of those top 10s coming since Tour resumed in June, including a T9 at last week’s Wyndham Championship where he closed with a field-low 64. He was T13 at the PGA Championship the week prior.
5. Bryson Booming
Patrick Reed might technically be the defending champion of The Northern Trust, but Bryson DeChambeau was the winner the last time TPC Boston hosted the PGA Tour, at the 2018 Dell Technologies Championship. One stroke behind Abraham Ancer after 54 holes, DeChambeau used five front-nine birdies to shoot a 67 and win by two strokes over former FedExCup champion Justin Rose. It was the fourth victory of his young career, and came on the heels of a win at the previous week’s The Northern Trust, which was held at New Jersey’s Ridgewood Country Club.
After something of a down year in 2019, DeChambeau has been one of the Tour’s best players for the entirety of the 2020 season. He co-leads the Tour in top 10s finishes, with nine in just 14 starts, and he posted top 8s in seven consecutive starts, despite that time being split up by the COVID layoff. He won his fourth start when play resumed, at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit.
One of the few things he had yet to do in his wildly successful career was contend at a major, and he did that at TPC Harding Park two weeks ago, where he was a part of the late seven-way tie before finishing T4, his best finish in a major by 11 positions. He currently sits at No. 8 in the world rankings, and fourth in the FedExCup Standings.
Bryson has been one of the talks of the Tour this season, bulking up prodigiously over the past two years, adding more power to a game that already was among the most powerful. DeChambeau currently leads the Tour in driving distance, averaging 323.9 yards off the tee. If that number doesn’t significantly drop over the rest of the season, it will be a Tour record.
In addition, he has proven to not be a one-trick pony, ranking fifth on Tour in strokes gained: putting. He leads the Tour in both scoring average and strokes gained: total. He will certainly have everyone’s attention this week.
6. Rory’s Tailspin
Rory McIlroy arrives at this year’s playoffs as the defending Cup champion. Also the FedExCup champion in 2016. Only he and Tiger have won golf’s most lucrative prize twice. He was T6 at The Northern Trust after opening the week with a 6-under 65, and his playoff run was a big part of the reason he was named Tour Player of the Year, despite being considerably outplayed in majors by Brooks Koepka.
The 31-year-old McIlroy is mired in a six-year majorless drought, but has spent a significant part of the season atop the world rankings. Concerning for the man who sits 8th in the current standings, he has looked like a completely different player since the COVID layoff, and not for good reasons.
Prior to the layoff, he had six consecutive top 5 finishes, including a win at the WGC-HSBC Champions. In his six starts since play resumed, he has failed to record even a top 10, with a T11 at the Travelers Championship being his only finish of better than T32.
A two-time PGA Championship winner, Rory was not a part of the leaderboard story at TPC Harding Park, struggling with his putter in a T33 result.
Nobody doubts that Rory can turn his best self back on at seemingly any moment, but in the past two months, he has given people reason to doubt as well. He will have a target on his back as he attempts to become the first player to win three FedExCup Championships.