Playtime is over.
Not that anything about the remorseless four-week FedExCup Playoffs is easy, but after 20% (25 of 125) players were eliminated in leg one, and 30% (30 of 100) more were ousted in leg two, the carnage gets turned up this week, as 57% (40 of 70) of the best golfers in the world will be suffocated from title contention at the 70-player BMW Championship.
The first half of the FedExCup Playoffs brought us first-class action, and two unforgettable duels: the first between world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and 24-year-old three-time major champion Jordan Spieth, and the second between Spieth and 24-year-old friend/rival PGA Champion Justin Thomas.
Will Conway Farms, the undoubtedly worthy venue of Event Three, the BMW Championship, be able to come anywhere close to reaching that sky-scraping bar? With a FedExCup Championship and over $10 million on the line, the richest prize in professional sports, it is almost certain.
Depending on how it is viewed, the BMW Championship could be considered to have a relatively short history, or a long, illustrious one.
The event we know today as the BMW Championship was an original FedExCup event started in 2007, the same year as the first playoffs, and has rotated between several Chicago-area courses.
Tiger Woods won the inaugural edition, and then took the championship again two years later in an eight-stroke shellacking at Cog HIll. In 2016, Dustin Johnson won his second BMW, which tied Tiger for the most wins in event history.
However, before it was the merciless third leg of the FedExCup Playoffs, the BMW Championship was a regular PGA Tour stop known as the Western Open, and that tournament has roots that go all the way back to 1899, making it the third-longest continuously running event on the PGA Tour, with only the U.S. Open and the Open Championship going back further.
For most of its history, the Western Open was an elite event that included such notable winners as Willie Anderson, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods.
Name: Conway Farms Golf Club
Where: Lake Forest, Illinois
Distance: 7198 yards, par 72
Architect: Tom Fazio
Winning Share: $1,575,000
FedExCup Points: 2000
The defending champion of the BMW Championship is Dustin Johnson. Played at Crooked Stick, Johnson’s record (to par) 23-under-par score was three strokes better than runner-up Paul Casey, and was the final win in a formidable season that netted him the PGA Tour Player of the Year Award.
Johnson shot 68 or better in all four rounds, including a Crooked Stick record 63 in round 2.
2016: Dustin Johnson
2015: Jason Day
2014: Billy Horschel
2013: Zach Johnson
2012: Rory McIlroy
2011: Justin Rose
Lowest Final Score: 262 (-22) – Tiger Woods, Cog Hill (2007); Jason Day, Conway Farms (2015)
Low Round: 59 (Round 2) – Jim Furyk, Conway Farms (2013)
TV & ONLINE
Round 1: 3-7:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 2: 3-7:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 3: 1-3:00 PM (Golf Channel); 3-6:00 PM (NBC)
Round 4: 12-2:00 PM (Golf Channel); 2-6:00 PM (NBC)
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STORYLINE 1: FedExCup Movement
As lucrative and prestigious as the BMW Championship is on its own, all 70 players in the field are salivating even more at the thought of what could be next: the top 30 of the FedExCup standings.
Everyone wants to be in that top 30 at the conclusion of this tournament, meaning that they have a spot in the field for the Tour Championship, the daunting final leg of the $10 million FedExCup Playoffs.
Simply making that field is a big deal in terms of exemptions for next season, as every East Lake participant has a spot in all four 2018 majors, regardless of how well they actually play in the playoff finale. And then factoring the money involved? Nobody in this field is going to need extra motivation at Conway Farms.
At the moment, these are the last five players projected to make the East Lake field:
No. 26 – Henrik Stenson
No. 27 – Brendan Steele
No. 28 – Jason Day
No. 29 – Gary Woodland
No. 30 – Bill Haas
None of these five can afford a poor week. If they don’t produce like Championship-caliber golfers, there are plenty of others in the field who would love their place.
On the other side of the bubble, these are the first five projected out:
No. 31 – Mackenzie Hughes
No. 32 – Xander Schauffele
No. 33 – Hudson Swafford
No. 34 – Sergio Garcia
No. 35 – Charles Howell III
These players need at least a moderately strong week at the BMW. They are not guaranteed anything right now, but they do have a bigger margin of error than those ranked further down.
Perhaps even more intense is the battle at the top of the standings. FedExCup points reset for the Tour Championship, and anyone in the top five after the BMW controls their own destiny. A win at East Lake for any of those five means an automatic FedExCup championship.
Everyone wants to be in that top 30, but everyone really, really wants to be in that top five. Currently, this is the top five:
No. 1 – Jordan Spieth
No. 2 – Justin Thomas
No. 3 –Dustin Johnson
No. 4 – Hideki Matsuyama
No. 5 – Jon Rahm
It cannot be overstated: everyone in this field has something big to play for. Nobody will be haphazardly going through the motions for a paycheck.
Among those not currently inside that coveted Top 30, there are a few that deserve an extra look this week:
Phil Mickelson (No. 36)
After nearly three painfully difficult months, the Phil Fan Brigade was all smiles at the Dell Technologies Championship two weeks ago. For the first time since he parted ways with long-time caddie Jim ‘Bones’ McKay, the 47-year-old Mickelson contended in a tournament.
The only player in the 100-man field to play all four rounds at TPC Boston in the 60s, Phil reached 11-under for the week, good for a desperately needed T6. The great week had myriad benefits for the five-time major champion.
The confidence factor was critical. Then there was his playoff standing, which elevated from No. 58 to No. 36, greatly improving his chances of making it to the Tour Championship for the ninth time in the 11 editions of the FedExCup Playoffs.
Perhaps even more importantly, playing so well gave Steve Stricker the justification he needed to name experienced Mickelson as one of his two Captain’s Picks for the upcoming President’s Cup. Another poor week, and Stricker may have found it necessary to select another player, for the good of the team.
Patrick Cantlay (No. 41)
One of the greatest stories on Tour this year has been the emergence of Patrick Cantlay, a man who had become largely forgotten after a series of injuries and a personal tragedy kept him on the sidelines for the better part of five seasons.
Cantlay has still been somewhat limited in 2017, but nobody can criticize the results: 11 events entered, 11 cuts made. He has looked nowhere near out-of-place in his first playoffs, posting finishes of T10 and T13 in the first two events.
The 25-year old was even in contention after 54 holes at TPC Boston, until a pedestrian even-par 71 in the final round dropped him back. Cantlay is a serious talent, and is not somebody the field will be taking lightly.
Rory McIlroy (No. 51)
It is downright shocking to see the World No. 6 and defending FedExCup Champion McIlroy in a position where his East Lake ticket is in jeopardy, but this 51st-place standing probably well reflects the current hobbled, underconfident version of Rory.
It is a real shame that a rib strain while testing equipment in January has caused all this, but at the very least, he should become a cautionary tale for players who are considering coming back from injury before they are 100% comfortable.
Despite everything that is going against him right now, it would be unwise to count out Rory completely. The injury is presumably not going to get worse from teeing up in these playoff events, so in theory, Rory is still unrestrained.
If he starts feeling it, he is as talented and as intimidating as anyone in the field. While he does not have a victory in 2017, he does have a few impressive finishes, including a T4 at The Open Championship and a T5 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, both relatively recent events.
Zach Johnson (No. 54)
The two-time major champion Johnson is a former winner of this tournament in a year it was held at Conway Farms, coming back from three strokes down after 54 holes to take the 2013 BMW by two strokes over Nick Watney.
Johnson was having an exceptionally disappointing 2017 season until July, when he went on a T5, T14, 2 stretch over three tournaments, but has again faded over his last three events. On the positive side, however, he may be coming back around again after he followed up a dismal first-round 77 last week at TPC Boston with rounds of 68, 69, and 72.
The 41-year old seems to rarely disappoint at courses where he has had previous success, and this is one of those times. Johnson has made it to East Lake in eight of ten previous FedExCup Playoffs, and will be motived to make it back after falling one event short in 2016.
Stewart Cink (No. 57)
With such a phenomenal group of captivating youngsters regularly in the spotlight, it is difficult for the Tour’s ‘old dogs’ to get attention, but many might be surprised to see that Stewart Cink is having a heck of a comeback season.
The veteran is hitting it long, putting it well, and his iron game has been absolutely pristine. The $1.4 million he has earned this season is his most since 2010.
By shooting 68s in the final three rounds of the Dell Technologies Championship, Cink finished T12 and was one of just three players who began the week outside the top 70 to play their way into a spot at Conway Farms.
The 44-year-old is feeling good and will be determined to prevent his season from ending this week. A few more rounds like he had at on the weekend at TPC Boston, and he might even pull out his first win since the 2009 Open Championship.
Ryan Moore (No. 67)
Just a year ago, Moore completed his best ever FedExCup Playoff run, finishing T8 or better in three of the four events, including a runner-up finish at the Tour Championship, to place 7th in the final FedExCup standings.
That fantastic stretch of play did not go unnoticed by Ryder Cup Captain Davis Love III, who used his last Captain’s pick on the 34-year-old Washingtonian. Moore rewarded Love’s confidence with a tremendous effort at Hazeltine, winning two fo three matches, and even scoring the winning point for the American side.
A year later, however, things are much different. Through 23 events in 2017, he has made just $1.6 million, one year after earning $3.7 million in the same number of starts. Moore has just two top 10s on the season, and is very fortunate to even be alive in the playoffs after withdrawing from the Dell Technologies Championship after a first-round 11-over 82.
Still, he has shown comfort in this position before, and just recently posted a top 15 finish at the PGA Championship. If somebody from deep in the pack suddenly makes a move to the front, it could easily be Moore.
STORYLINE 2: DJ Defends
When world No. 1 Dustin Johnson won The Northern Trust, the opening event of the FedExCup Playoffs, his fourth win of the season and first win since March, it looked like he might finally be back to his unbeatable pre-Augusta form, when he won three consecutive tournaments, including two WGC events.
Now, one tournament later, nobody has any idea what DJ is going to show up at Conway Farms.
Johnson kept his winning form through the first 18 holes at TPC Boston, shooting a 5-under 66 to take the solo first-round lead. Two back nine double-bogeys in the second round led to a disappointing 1-over 72, which backed him up a ways, but that looked like a small hiccup after he posted a second 66 in round three, this one bogey-free, hitting 15 of 18 greens and carding birdies on four of his final five holes.
Back in the leader mix, DJ was in seventh place with 18 holes to go, but brought no fight to Monday’s (Labor Day) final round. When the rest of the leaderboard was engulfed in an epic front-nine birdie frenzy, led by Jordan Spieth, who played that front nine in 6-under, Johnson actually played his front nine in 3-over, with three bogeys and no birdies. His back nine was better (-1), but a 2-over 73 dropped him all the way to T18 on the final leaderboard.
Still, at No. 3 in the FedExCup standings, Johnson is a near lock for one of the much-coveted top five spots at the Tour Championship. He would love to be able to control his own destiny at East Lake, one year after the FedExCup barely eluded him, as he went into the playoff finale at No. 1 in the standings, only to be passed by a surging Rory McIlroy in the 11th hour.
DJ may have gone 0-for in the majors this year, but a FedExCup Championship would give plenty of validation to his incredible 2017 season.
STORYLINE 3: Thomas v Spieth
At No. 1 and No. 2 in the FedExCup Standings, 24-year-old superstars Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas have taken turns as the Toast of the Tour over the past two months.
Since late June, Spieth has won the Travelers Championship and The Open Championship, his third career major triumph, in addition to solo runner-up finishes in the first two FedExCup Playoff events.
Thomas started his season about as hot as a player can, and then cooled off for some time in the summer, but has recently re-discovered his game with wins at the PGA Championship, his first career major victory, and at the Dell Technologies Championship. Sandwiched between those marquee victories is a T6 at the playoff-opening The Northern Trust.
The two close friends have relished in the other’s refulgent 2017 success, and with just two events left in the season, they are neck-and-neck in the race to be named PGA Tour Player of the Year.
With both winning one 2017 major apiece, Thomas’ five victories and 11 top 10s likely has him out front of Spieth’s three victories and three runner-ups, but a FedExCup Championship for Spieth, who currently leads Thomas by a narrow 27-point margin in the standings, could easily tip the scales back in Spieth’s favor.
STORYLINE 4: Casey’s Playoff Affinity
Over the past two years, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London has been setting Greenwich Mean Time on the high finishes of countryman Paul Casey, or at least it could if it needed to.
Since finishing T5 at the 2015 Tour Championship, the 40-year-old Casey has had the following finishes in FedExCup Playoff events: T31, 2, 2, 4, 5, T4. That makes six top-5 finishes in his last seven playoff events.
As impressive of a showing as it has been for Casey over the past two-plus playoff seasons, he has consistently had trouble closing these events.
This year has not been an exception. Casey was in third place going into the final round of The Northern Trust, but bogeyed four of his first six Sunday holes, leading to a final round 1-over 72.
Then, at the Dell Technologies Championship, Casey started the final round just one shot out of the lead, but he was unable to keep up on the front nine, and then collapsed midway through the back with bogeys on 11, 14, and 15. Birdies on 16 and 17 were mostly cosmetic, as Casey ended up shooting a 1-under 70, good for a T4.
FIVE OTHER NOTABLES IN THE FIELD
1. Hideki Matsuyama
The FedExCup Playoffs have cooled off Hideki-mania as the world No. 3, who came into the playoffs at No. 1 in the Cup Standings, has a missed cut and a T23 in the two playoff events.
Now at No. 4 in the standings, the 25-year-old needs to stop the bleeding at Conway Farms if he wants to get to East Lake with a top-five position. Despite his two recent disappointments, this is still a player with three wins and three runner-ups on the season.
In addition, he just recently played in the final Sunday pairing at the PGA Championship and he also scorched the Sunday field at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, with a dominant final round 61 where he showed some of the best iron play the Tour has seen from anyone in recent memory.
Even at TPC Boston, his final result was not impressive, but a final round 5-under 66 may indicate that he has gotten on top of the greenside troubles that plagued his previous five rounds.
2. Jason Day
Nobody really knows what to make of Day, the man who was No. 1 in the world when the calendar flipped over to 2017.
A difficult season, both on and off the course, has engendered inconsistent results and a drop to world No. 9, but he was trending positively after a great T9 showing (for 71 holes anyway) at the PGA Championship and a T6 at The Northern Trust. He then opened up the Dell Techonologies Championship with a 4-over 75 and barely made the cut.
However, he played his last three rounds in 8-under, which included a final round 66, giving credence to the belief that his first round was just a bad day, something even a player of Day’s caliber is vulnerable to on occasion.
3. Jon Rahm
The ultra-talented 22-year-old has looked like a seasoned vet in his Playoffs debut, and currently holds that important No. 5 spot in the standings after finishes of T3 and T4 in the first two events.
With seven of his eight rounds resulting in a 68 or better, nobody should dismiss the strong possibility that Rahm makes it out of these four weeks $10 million richer.
4. Rickie Fowler
Only Spieth and Thomas have been in the top 10 more often than the nine times Fowler has been this season. Fowler is No. 2 on Tour in scoring average and strokes gained: putting, and has finished T22 or better in his past seven starts.
Currently holding down the No. 6 spot in the FedExCup Standings, he has been in the mix as often as anyone this year, but a February victory at The Honda Classic remains his only 2017 win.
5. Brooks Koepka
With finishes of T49 and T18, the 2017 U.S. Open winner has not yet made his presence felt in this year’s playoffs, but as he showed this year by finishing T13 or better in all four majors, no tournament is too big for him.
Koepka is currently No. 9 in the standings, but at nearly 1000 points behind No. 5 Jon Rahm, he will need a great week at Conway Farms and some help to land one of the top five positions for The Tour Championship.
FULL FIELD: BMW CHAMPIONSHIP
|Charles Howell III
|Si Woo Kim
|Rafa Cabrera Bello