With Henrik Stenson’s winning putt in Greensboro at the Wyndham Championship, the PGA Tour regular season reached its conclusion. Thirty-nine arduous weeks of the battle royale known as the FedExCup have now come to this: a four-week frenzy composed of the 125 surviving golfers who proved themselves most worthy of the playoffs.
From No. 1 Hideki Matsuyama to No. 125 J.J. Henry, the most gripping postseason in professional sports begins at Glen Oaks Club this week with The Northern Trust, the first of four elite-field events.
Over these four weeks, the 125 will be whittled down to 1: a FedExCup Champion, who will be awarded professional golf immorality… and $10 million dollars.
Attempting to put a nagging rib injury aside, Rory McIlroy seeks to win a second-consecutive FedExCup title, but 124 golfers have other ideas.
It all starts in New York.
This is the first year this tournament is going by the name “The Northern Trust,” but the event itself has been an annual stop on the PGA Tour since 1967. For a long time the tournament was simply known as “The Westchester,” as the first 40 editions were played at Westchester Country Club in Harrison, New York.
That inaugural 1967 event was won by Jack Nicklaus, and over the years, notable winners have included Julius Boros, Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller, Raymond Floyd, Seve Ballesteros, Hale Irwin, Ernie Els, and Vijay Singh.
Singh holds the tournament record for victories with four, most recently taking the 2008 edition in a playoff over Sergio Garcia and Kevin Sutherland. Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Els, and Garcia are the only other multiple winners with two wins apiece.
Since 2007, The Northern Trust has been the opening event of the FedExCup playoffs, and for the first time, the tournament will be held at Glen Oaks Club in Old Westbury, New York.
Glen Oaks contains three nine-hole courses, and The Northern Trust will use holes from all three.
Name: Glen Oaks Club
Where: Old Westbury, New York
Distance: 7,350 yards, par 70
Architect: Joe Finger
Winning Share: $1,575,000
FedExCup Points: 2,000
The defending champion of The Northern Trust is Patrick Reed. One stroke behind Rickie Fowler after 54 holes, Reed fell two strokes off the pace with an early bogey, but then vaulted into the lead after birdies on holes 4, 5, and 7.
Reed controlled the tournament on the back nine as Fowler faltered down the stretch. Despite two late bogeys when he was in prevent mode, Reed finished with a 1-under 70 and a one-stroke victory over Emiliano Grillo and Sean O’Hair.
2016: Patrick Reed
2015: Jason Day
2014: Hunter Mahan
2013: Adam Scott
2012: Nick Watney
2011: Dustin Johnson
TV & ONLINE COVERAGE
Round 1: 2-6:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 2: 2-6:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 3: 1-2:30 PM (Golf Channel); 3-6:00 PM (CBS)
Round 4: 12-1:30 PM (Golf Channel); 2-6:00PM (CBS)
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STORYLINE 1: STAVING OFF ELIMINATION
Players have been accumulating FedExCup points since the Safeway Open last October, and the 125 who did that best are facing off this week at The Northern Trust, the first event of the FedExCup playoffs.
A four-week event, players begin this event with the points they earned over the past ten months, but for 25 in the field, the ride will end in Old Westbury, as only the top 100 will move onto the Dell Technologies Championship, the second playoff event.
A large portion of the field will have enough FedExCup points to move onto round two, regardless of what happens at The Northern Trust, but even those who have locked up later round berths will not be short on motivation.
Cup points are quadrupled for the first three playoff rounds, meaning the player who takes top billing in New York will earn a cool 2,000 points. To put that into perspective, only four players tallied more than 2,000 points during the entire season, so there is a great deal of potential for playoff movement. A win here makes a player a lock to reach the Tour Championship, regardless of whether that winner is No. 1 Hideki Matsuyama or J.J. Henry (125).
Perhaps the best example is Heath Slocum, who entered the 2009 playoffs at 124, but after a first-round victory, moved up to third-place.
Those top five spots are especially important because it allows those players to control their own destiny for the final tournament, as the points are re-set going into the Tour Championship in a way that an East Lake win from anyone in the top 5 automatically clinches the FedExCup Championship, and its prodigious $10 million prize.
Anyone below the top five going into the final would need a great showing plus help.
While many in the field can get away with a poor showing in The Northern Trust (a few players, most notably No. 22 Sergio Garcia and No. 66 Adam Scott, even chose to skip the first round entirely), those closer to the cut line do not have that luxury, as those outside of the top 100 after the first round will be eliminated from the playoffs.
Notables going into Glen Oaks south of the 100 include Jimmy Walker (101), Luke Donald (107), Steve Stricker (110), Bubba Watson (113), and Geoff Ogilvy (116). These players, and those around them, should be operating with a sense of urgency, as their margin of error is nil.
STORYLINE 2: THE JUSTIN THOMAS FACTOR
Hideki Matsuyama may be the FedExCup standings leader going into the playoffs, but the player drawing the most early attention is the man at #2, Justin Thomas, who will be making his PGA debut as a major champion, after a brilliant triumph at the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow fewer than two weeks ago.
With three wins before mid-January, Thomas has been at the top of the standings, or like he is now, very close to it, for nearly the entire season. A summer swoon, where Thomas missed three consecutive cuts after a tough T9 finish at the U.S. Open, took considerable hype away from Thomas, but after his triumph at the season’s final major, the 24-year-old is again, the talk of the Tour.
This will be Thomas’ third consecutive playoff year, as he made it to the second-to-last round (the BMW Championship) in 2015, and was among the 30 to qualify for the final round at East Lake last year. He came into the 2016 playoffs ranked 10th in the standings, so Thomas is very conversant with playoff pressure.
Some further motivation for Thomas: he is the current favorite to be named 2017 PGA Tour Player of the Year. It will be difficult for anyone to outdo his four wins, including one major, but good friend Jordan Spieth is close.
Spieth had three wins himself, including a major, a thrilling triumph at The Open Championship. There is a believe that FedExCup performance could serve as a tiebreaker between the two, and possibly more if Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, or Brooks Koepka go on a playoff tear.
STORYLINE 3: REED DEFENDS
The breakthrough victory of Justin Thomas was not the only significant development that took place two weeks ago at Quail Hollow. One of the three runner-ups was Patrick Reed, the same very same Patrick Reed who happens to be the defending champion of The Northern Trust.
The high finish could not have come at a better time for the 27-year-old five-time Tour winner Reed.
The world’s 21st ranked player, Reed was in the midst of a disappointing season by his lofty standards with just three top 10 finishes, one season after tallying 11 of them.
He did finish in the top 25 in an impressive 12 of 25 events, but he rarely contended, and was irrelevant in the first three 2017 majors, and even missed the cut entirely at The Masters and The Open Championship.
Now, after a great showing at the PGA, the 2016 American Ryder Cup star seems to have his swagger back, and has four chances to record a win and extend his consecutive-season win streak to five.
STORYLINE 4: MATSUYAMA’S MENTAL GAME
The 2017 season has been a banner one for 25-year-old Japan native Hideki Matsuyama, a season where he earned the No. 1 spot in the FedExCup standings at the the conclusion of the regular season.
Matsuyama, ranked No. 2 in the world, finished in the top two of a season-high six events, with three victories and three runner-ups.
Like Thomas, Matsuyama was incredible in the beginning of the season, notching two wins and two runner-ups by early February, but then had something of a mid-season lull before exploding again late. In his three outings before the PGA Championship, Matsuyama was runner-up at the U.S. Open, finished T14 at The Open Championship, and then obliterated the Sunday field with a pristine final-round 61 to win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
At Quail Hollow, a second-round 64 got Matsuyama into the major leaderboard mix; he was the 36-hole co-leader and was just one back after 54. He captured the solo lead after 10 holes on Sunday, but a roller-coaster back nine where he had three birdies, but bogeyed 11, 12, 13, 16, and 18, dropped him to a disappointing T5 result.
The Northern Trust will be Matsuyama’s first tournament since that PGA Championship, and while his game has been incredible as of late, particularly his iron play, it remains to be seen what kind of effect his Quail Hollow stumble could have on his psyche.
STORYLINE 5: RORY’S ROAD BLOCK
While Patrick Reed is the defending champion of The Northern Trust, perhaps an even bigger story is Rory McIlroy, who is the defending FedExCup Champion. The four-time major winner took two FedExCup playoff events, including an extra-hole triumph at the Tour Championship to leave East Lake more than $10 million richer.
Rory’s late-season heroics resulted in even higher expectations than usual for 2017, but the 28-year-old from Northern Ireland fell well short.
An offseason rib injury caused McIlroy all sorts of problems, which resulted in two absent stretches earlier in the year, and even when he came back, he was not the same. It looked like he was close to getting back into winning form when a final-round 67 at The Open Championship led to a T4 finish. He then contended in Akron at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, despite firing his caddie the week prior, shooting four rounds in the 60s to post a T5.
His improving form and his dominant history at Quail Hollow made him the prohibitive favorite going into the PGA Championship, but McIlroy was an enormous disappointment, posting a 72-72-73 start and finishing tied for 22nd place at 1 over.
After the PGA Championship, Rory admitted that he is still not fully healed from his rib injury and brought up the possibility that he might shut it down for 2017.
After thinking it over, McIlroy made the decision to fight through the injury and attempt to defend his FedExCup Championship. Despite the down season, Rory still finished the regular season 44th in the standings, making him a lock to get to at least the third round, but nobody knows how well his physical and mental health will hold up over the next month.
OTHER NOTABLES IN THE FIELD
The 2015 FedExCup Champion enters the 2017 postseason in third place, after another phenomenal season. The 24-year-old had eight top 10 finishes this season, three of those being victories, including an unbelievable performance at The Open Championship. The concern for the world No. 3 might be a little dejected after his most recent outing.
Spieth went into the PGA Championship as stories A, B, C, and D, as a win at the year’s final major would have made him the youngest to ever complete the Career Grand Slam. Spieth was unable to get much going at Quail Hollow, never factoring in the mix with a T28 (+2).
He is No. 2 on Tour in scoring average this year, so if he can put the PGA Championship behind him, he is as good a bet as anyone in the field.
It has been one heck of an up-and-down season for the man who is No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings. The 33-year-old started his season on a tear, culminating in a three-win start streak in February-March.
A freak off-course injury the day before The Masters torpedoed his momentum, and he was a non-factor in the majors he did play, but with finishes of T8, T17, and T13 in his last three starts, he might be heating back up at an auspicious time.
The 2017 major season passed with Fowler again going 0-for-4, but as a whole, he should not be too upset with how he has played this year. His nine top 10s co-led the Tour with Justin Thomas, with four of those being in the top 3, including a win at the Honda Classic back in February.
Fowler finished the regular season at No. 5 in the FedExCup standings and is going into the playoffs hot, with top 10s in four of his last five starts.
Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but there is no way around the truth that Phil has played terribly since parting ways with long-time caddy Jim ‘Bones’ MacKay, alternating two missed cuts, both at majors, with a T20 at The Greenbrier and a T39 at Firestone.
At 51st in the standings, this ties Phil’s all-time low at the end of the regular season. He is popular everywhere, but he is especially loved in New York, and with a pseudo-home crowd behind him, he cannot be counted out at Glen Oaks.
The 41-year-old, who is now the PGA Tour’s all-time leader among Swedes, finally crashed the 2017 victory party, winning in record-setting fashion at last weekend’s Wyndham Championship. The 2013 FedExCup Champion made a spectacular leap up the standings, going from 75th to 23rd, likely ensuring another deep playoff run.