A PGA Tour season like no other before ends in the usual way this week: with the top 30 in the FedExCup Standings facing off at the Tour Championship, held at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.
In the second edition of a unique format, the winner will receive the biggest prize in professional sports: the $15 million FedExCup Championship. With large consolation prizes as well, the Tour Championship is lucrative for the entire field.
There is no shortage of intrigue going into the final event of the frantically rescheduled 2020 season, but here are three that warrant the most attention:
1. Second Year in New Format
The FedExCup playoffs were first held in 2007, with Tiger Woods taking the title after winning two of the three playoff events. The following year, an additional week was added. There had been some fine-tuning over the years, but nothing as dramatic as the changes that were made for the 2019 season.
Starting with last year’s playoffs, four events were reduced to just three, with a first round cutoff at 70 players, followed by a second week cut of 30, leading to the typical size of the Tour Championship field.
The previous points reset became unnecessary. Fueled largely by a desire for the Tour Championship winner and the FedExCup Champion to NOT be won by different players, the PGA Tour introduced a new Tour Championship format where the points leader going into the finale gets to start the event at 10-under. Second place in the standings gets to start at 8-under par, and the numbers drop from there.
In the inaugural Championship under the new format, Justin Thomas was the lucky player to start at 10 under. He finished third while Rory McIlroy, who began the final round at 5 under took both the Tour Championship and FedExCup title. It seemed to bring more intrigue to a previous format that had grown a little stale.
Here is the starting leaderboard for the second edition under the new format.
1. Dustin Johnson -10
2. Jon Rahm -8
3. Justin Thomas -7
4. Webb Simpson -6
5. Collin Morikawa -5
6. Daniel Berger -4
6. Harris English -4
6. Bryson DeChambeau -4
6. Sungjae Im -4
6. Hideki Matsuyama -4
11. Brendon Todd -3
11. Rory McIlroy -3
11. Patrick Reed -3
11. Xander Schauffele -3
11. Sebastian Munoz -3
16. Lanto Griffin -2
16. Scottie Scheffler -2
16. Joaquin Niemann -2
16. Tyrrell Hatton -2
16. Tony Finau -2
21. Kevin Kisner -1
21. Abraham Ancer -1
21. Ryan Palmer -1
21. Kevin Na -1
21. Marc Leishman -1
26. Cameron Smith E
26. Viktor Hovland E
26. Mackenzie Hughes E
26. Cameron Champ E
26. Billy Horschel E
2. Rory Defends
Going into last year’s Tour Championship, Rory McIlroy had made 18 starts and recorded top 10s in 13 of them. Two of those top 10s were victories, as the pride of Northern Ireland claimed both THE PLAYERS Championship and the RBC Canadian Open.
After a T19 at the previous week’s BMW Championship, Rory had earned the fifth position in the FedExCup Standings, allowing him to begin the Tour Championship at 5-under – five strokes behind points leader Justin Thomas.
Off the strength of bookend 4-under 66s, McIlroy won the Tour Championship by four strokes over 2017 event winner Xander Schauffele.
The victory, McIlroy’s second Tour Championship title, earned him the FedExCup and its increased $15 million prize. As a result, McIlroy would go on to be named PGA Tour Player of the Year, which was incredibly controversial given how much better Brooks Koepka had been in majors.
Rory finished the 2019 calendar year at No. 2 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and played well enough early in the year to again ascend to the first position. Before COVID-19 shut down the PGA Tour for three months, Rory had been in some of the best form of his career.
In addition to success on the European Tour, his PGA Tour season could not have started better. In six starts, he had a win (WGC-HSBC Champions), two T3s, and three fifth-place finishes.
But since the Tour resumed play in late May, it has been a much different story for the four-time major champion.
A final round 74 at the Charles Schwab Challenge dropped Rory from ninth place into a share of 32nd. He opened poorly the following week at the RBC Heritage and finished T41.
Now, in eight starts since the re-start, McIlroy is STILL looking for another top 10. He was a complete non-factor at the PGA Championship, posting a T33, and he was horrendous in his playoff start, finishing T65 at The Northern Trust.
It looked like Rory might finally be figuring it out again when he took the 36-hole co-lead at last week’s BMW Championship. However, he played the weekend 73-71 to finish 3-over for the week, good for a share of 12th.
Rory’s 2020 Season
Before COVID Break
3rd – ZOZO Championship
1st – WGC-HSBC Championship
3rd – Farmers Insurance Open
5th – Genesis Invitational
5th – WGC-Mexico Championship
5th – Arnold Palmer Invitational
After COVID Break
32nd – Charles Schwab Challenge
41st – RBC Heritage
11th – Travelers Championship
32nd – The Memorial
47th – WGC-FedEx St Jude Inv.
33rd – PGA Championship
65th – The Northern Trust
12th – BMW Championship
Despite the decrease in results, Rory played well enough over the course of the season where East Lake was never in jeopardy. He will be starting in a worse position than last year though, as the 12th spot starts his week at just 3-under, seven strokes behind the absurdly hot Dustin Johnson.
If Rory is able to make up the deficit and repeat at the playoff finale, he would become the first three time champion of the FedExCup. Is that realistic? He certainly has positive course history with two wins (2016, 2019) and a runner-up (2014).
One thing to note is Rory’s wife is expecting the birth of their first child any day now. There is no doubt that it has been weighing heavily on Rory’s mind, and there is even a possibility he could be physically pulled from East Lake.
3. DJ vs Rahm: Part II?
Last week’s BMW Championship, held at Olympia Fields Golf Club outside of Chicago, proved a worthy test for the top 70 golfers in the FedExCup Standings, with the winning score being a shockingly-low 4-under-par, and only five players finishing better than even-par for the week.
Even better for TV executives, Sunday’s closing round turned into a duel between the top two players in the Official World Golf Rankings: No. 1 Dustin Johnson vs No. 2 Jon Rahm.
With a stellar final round 6-under 64, Rahm got into the clubhouse at 4-under. Johnson sunk a wild 43-foot birdie putt on the final hole to force the playoff. As impressive as THAT putt was, it was nothing compared to the 66’5” foot winding birdie putt that Rahm somehow connected on the first playoff hole.
No. 2 beat No. 1 in thrilling fashion. While the gap between the two was closed up, Johnson still holds a narrow lead in the OWGR.
Now, at this week’s Tour Championship, Johnson and Rahm, now also No. 1 and No. 2 in the FedExCup Standings, getting into the championship mix feels inevitable. If such a battle were to happen again, it is anyone’s guess who would come out on top.
Johnson might have lost last week’s playoff, although it’d be more accurate to say that Rahm won it, but he is showing some of the best form of his illustrious 22-win PGA Tour career.
DJ won June’s Travelers Championship off the strength of a third-round 61. Just over a month later, he contended late at the PGA Championship, making the final Sunday pairing and finishing T2, two strokes behind winner Collin Morikawa.
Then the FedExCup playoffs began. Johnson surged into the lead on the second day with a ridiculous 11-under 60 at TPC Boston, the host site of The Northern Trust. It could have been even better: he was 11-under through 11 holes, looking at an all-time great round before parring his last seven holes.
Johnson reached 30-under for the week and ended up winning The Northern Trust by a whopping 11-strokes, the biggest margin of victory on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson won the 2006 BellSouth Classic by 13 strokes. Johnson moved from No. 4 to No. 1 in the world rankings with the win.
Prior to the COVID-19 layoff, Rahm had been on an insane run. In the stretch of play from the 2019 U.S. Open until play was suspended at THE PLAYERS Championship, Rahm made 18 starts worldwide. In those starts, he had three victories, four runner-ups, three third-place finishes, four other top 10 finishes, and just one finish of worse than T17.
Rahm was slow to shake the rust off when Tour play resumed, but the 25-year-old Spainard found his way back to the top when he claimed a three-stroke victory at July’s the Memorial Tournament. The win got him to world No. 1 for the first time. He was overtaken by Justin Thomas in his next start, re-took No. 1, and then was passed by Johnson after his massacre at The Northern Trust.
Rahm was trending positively before the BMW, finishing T13 at the PGA Championship and T6 at The Northern Trust.
Johnson gets to start the Tour Championship two strokes ahead of Rahm, but deciding between the two is basically even-money. Both have shown their best, and both have excellent weeks at East Lake on their resumes.