Tour Championship Starter: Storylines, Power Rankings, and Whatnot

Justin Thomas
Justin Thomas plays his shot from the 4th tee during the third round of the TOUR Championship at East Lake GC on Sep 23, 2017 in Atlanta, GA. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

And it all comes down to this: Four days. 72 holes. 30 players. $60 million up for grabs.

It was an unforgettable PGA Tour season, but like all good things, it has to end. And that conclusion is this week, as the top 30 in the final FedExCup Standings bring their best to historic East Lake Golf Club for the Tour Championship – both the last event of the 2019 Tour season and the final leg of the FedExCup Playoffs.

The stakes? Crazy high.

The FedExCup Championship brings validation to an exhausting season and a grind that includes endless hours of listless practice that the TV cameras do not pick up.

The FedExCup Playoffs have always been ultra-lucrative, but it is on a different level this year, as the Fortune 500 mainstay increased the purse to a mind-boggling $60 million with a record $15 million going to the winner. To put that into perspective, this amounts to the combined annual income of 1,666 FedEx truck drivers.

Now, the elites of the PGA Tour – those still standing after 40-plus weeks – might not be living paycheck to paycheck like a FedEx truck driver, but that top prize is still a tremendous motivator.

In addition to the insane prize pool, the format is new, and somewhat controversial. The past two years, the winners of the Tour Championship – Xander Schauffele (2017) and Tiger Woods (2018) – did not win the FedExCup.

No more.

An advantage has been built into the system for those who have played the best, and the man on top at the end gets the whole enchilada.

That advantage? A handicap system, or officially called Starting Strokes, where – for the first time in the history of the PGA Tour – a player will be sleeping on a Wednesday lead.

Justin Thomas
Justin Thomas plays his shot from the 4th tee during the third round of the TOUR Championship at East Lake GC on Sep 23, 2017 in Atlanta, GA. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Justin Thomas, the dominant winner of last week’s BMW Championship, gets to start the Tour Championship at 10-under, two strokes ahead of FedExCup No. 2 Patrick Cantlay.

World No. 1 Brooks Koepka (-7) is three back, and it goes down from there based on the final standings.

Despite winning the Masters, while holding a world ranking inside the top 10, Tiger Woods will not be able to defend his 2018 Tour Championship title. Also missing in Atlanta this week will be another major winner, Shane Lowry, who won the Open Championship but opted out of the season’s final two stops.

(Editor’s Note: The PGA Tour should be embarrassed that two of the four major winners were excluded from the Tour’s playoff finale. If you win a major you should be in. Period. Either through an exemption, or increased points awarded. The idea that a major winner receives only 100 more points than the winner of the Spaceship Insurance Invitational is laughable.)

Phil Mickelson, the 43-time Tour winner, who stood in the winner’s circle in February (AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am), but then seemed to lose his once-timeless game overnight, will also be home watching.

As will Jordan Spieth, who will miss his second-straight post-season finale – something unthinkable just 16 months ago, when then world No. 3 put on a Sunday charge for the ages at Augusta National.

Other familiar names who failed to qualify include 12-time Tour winners Bubba Watson and Jason Day.

We are not saying all that to persuade viewers away from NBC, the network covering the event, but to make this point: if those guys DIDN’T qualify for the Tour Championship, what does it say about those who did?


The Skinny

Tournament: TOUR Championship
Dates: Aug 22-25, 2019
Where: Atlanta, GA
Course: East Lake Golf Club
Distance: Par 70, 7346 yards
Architect: Tom Bendelow (1908), Donald Ross (1913)
Redesign: Rees Jones (1994)
Format: 72-holes, stroke-play/starting-strokes, no cut
Purse: $60 million
Winning Share: $15 million
2018 Champion: Tiger Woods


History Spotlight

Jordan Spieth Wins 2015 FedExCup and Tour Championship
Jordan Spieth poses with the trophies after winning the Tour Championship and FedExCup at East Lake GC in Atlanta, GA on Sep 27, 2015. Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Tour Championship has been the FedExCup playoff finale since the first playoff in 2007, but the event has roots going back 20 years earlier. Always an elite, limited-field event, the inaugural 1987 event was claimed by Tom Watson – two strokes clear of Chip Beck, the second member of the 59 Club.

Other champions have included former legends such as Curtis Strange, Tom Kite, Paul Azinger, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, and Jordan Spieth, along with current top-10 ranked stars such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

Woods holds the tournament record with three wins – two coming in the FedExCup format, the most recent of which was just last year. Mickelson is the only other player to have won more than once, with Tiger as the runner-up in both of Phil’s victories.

East Lake Golf Club has been the Tour Championship’s permanent venue since 2004, although the FedExCup is only a small part of the club’s story. Founded 100 years earlier in 1904, the Atlanta course is a Donald Ross design, famous for being the home course of the legendary Bobby Jones.

It is believed to be the site where Jones played his first and last rounds. The course also once hosted the Ryder Cup, the 1963 edition, with Arnold Palmer as the U.S. captain.


Stat of the Week

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy tees off during the final round of the Tour Championship at East Lake GC in Atlanta, GA on Sep 25, 2016. Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

6 – The position of Rory McIlroy in the FedExCup Standings heading into East Lake when he won the Tour Championship in 2016. Winning an unforgettable playoff over Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell, Rory also got help in the way of FedExCup Standings leader Dustin Johnson stumbling to a Sunday 73 that knocked him from first to T6, allowing McIlroy to also win the FedExCup Championship.

Surprisingly, that was the last time the Tour Championship winner also won the FedExCup.

McIlroy comes into this year’s Tour Championship in the fifth position, and he will start at 5-under, five strokes back of the lead. It has been a season of highs and lows for the world No. 3, who was disappointing in the major season, particularly in missing the cut at The Open Championship, which was being held in his native Northern Ireland. But, he also amassed 13 top 10s in just 18 starts, including victories at THE PLAYERS Championship and the RBC Canadian Open.

A second FedExCup title would be huge for the ultra-talented McIlroy, who recently turned 30.


Hole of the Week

The 15th hole at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia – the host venue of the PGA Tour’s season finale. Credit: East Lake Golf Club

No. 15, East Lake Golf Club
Par 3, 211 yards

Considered one of the oldest “isthmus” par 3s (not an island, but close to being one) in the country, the 15th hole at East Lake should once again provide all kinds of action this week. A super-flat green is surrounded by the golf course’s iconic lake, which provides a natural setting for gusts of wind to create havoc at most any time.

“The 15th hole will really be a gut-checking hole, as Justin Rose refers to some of the holes at East Lake,” Rees Jones said in 2016. “They will have to fight through 14 and 15 and then push the pedal down on the last three holes.”

The club’s signature hole has historically played well over par, and has ruined many good rounds down the stretch.

2018 Avg: 3.125 (3rd hardest)
2018 Scores: 18 Birdies, 76 Pars, 19 Bogeys, 7 Doubles


Five Storylines To Follow

1. Thomas on Top

Justin Thomas Wins BMW Championship
Justin Thomas plays his shot from the 5th tee during the final round of the BMW Championship at Medinah CC No. 3 on Aug 18, 2019 in Medinah, IL. Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

A 12-month winless drought would not seem like much for 98% of the Tour, but it felt like an eternity since Justin Thomas had last won before he dominated last week’s BMW Championship.

Now, despite not having recorded a top 10 finish since February, the man who became the fifth quickest player in PGA Tour history to double-digit wins holds the pole position in the FedExCup Standings. He will start the Tour Championship with a two-stroke advantage.

Thomas has played this event three times, with three finishes of 7th or better, including a solo-2nd two years ago, which was good enough to secure the FedExCup Championship. He is back in elite form, has great history here, and starts out at 10-under: what’s not to like?


2. Koepka’s Season Finale

Brooks Koepka Wins 2019 PGA Championship
Brooks Koepka celebrates with caddie Ricky Elliott on the 18th green after winning the PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 19, 2019 in Farmingdale, New York. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Before Justin Thomas surged into the FedExCup lead at Medinah, World No. 1, and presumptive PGA Tour Player of the Year, Brooks Koepka held the top position.

It was another amazing season for Koepka, who won three times, including the PGA Championship, and finished in the top-4 of all four major championships. In his final start before the playoffs, Koepka won the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, proving he is more than a major championship wizard.

However, he has looked much more pedestrian in the two playoff events, finishing T30 at the Northern Trust, and T24 at the BMW Championship. Still, he is in the third position (-7), and is only three strokes behind Thomas to start.

We know Koepka shows up big in big events, and with a greatly-increased prize pool, it does not get much bigger than this.


3. Rose Defends His Cup Championship

Justin Rose Wins 2018 FedExCup
Justin Rose takes a selfie with the FedExCup trophy after the final round of the TOUR Championship at East Lake GC on Sep 23, 2018 in Atlanta, GA. Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

With Tiger Woods unable to qualify for this year’s Tour Championship, there is no real defending champion, at least as far as East Lake is concerned, but Justin Rose is still out to defend his FedExCup Championship from a year ago.

If Rose is going to pull it off, however, he will have to have one heck of a week. He starts the playoff finale in the 17th position, meaning he only gets to start at 2-under, eight strokes behind Thomas.

At World No. 4, Rose has played well enough to keep a high position in the OWGR, but a disappointing T52 at last week’s BMW Championship snapped a string of five straight top-20 finishes. Rose has the game to win, and has two runner-ups among his last six starts at East Lake, all of which have resulted in top-10 finishes.

He has been surprisingly vulnerable in high-pressure situations this year, having finished poorly at both the U.S. Open and the Open Championship, but nobody will be surprised if he finds a way to get into the mix, even from far back on the initial leaderboard.


4. Can’t Forget Cantlay

Patrick Cantlay
Patrick Cantlay surveys his putt on the 3rd hole during the final round of the BMW Championship at Medinah CC No. 3 on Aug 18, 2019 in Medinah, IL. Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

With a six-stroke lead heading into Sunday, it was relatively easy going for Justin Thomas on his way to the BMW Championship, but Patrick Cantlay made things interesting for a while, getting within two strokes on the back nine, and shooting a 7-under 65, the second-lowest score in the round 4 field, on his way to a runner-up finish.

The stellar finish at Medinah, combined with a tremendous season where he recorded nine top-10s, has the 27-year-old in the No. 2 position at East Lake, where he will begin at 8-under, just two strokes behind Thomas.

Cantlay has been consistently great this season, a season highlighted by a win at The Memorial, and a T3 at the Masters, where he held the solo lead late before giving way to Tiger Woods. It is difficult to argue the recent form either; Cantlay has finished inside the top 15 in 8 of his last 10 individual event starts.

The Memorial was a big time win, but a FedExCup Championship would really put the profile of the World No. 7 on a different level.


5. Best Longshots?

Xander Schauffele
Xander Schauffele plays his shot from the 14th tee during the final round of the TOUR Championship at East Lake GC on Sep 24, 2017 in Atlanta, GA. Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Thomas, Cantlay, and Koepka will be getting the most attention coming into the week, a justifiable result of their high standing on the initial leaderboard, but perhaps more than any other year since the inception of the FedExCup, the new format gives tremendous hope to the impressive group of longshots.

Even those who start East Lake at even par get four days to claw their way into the mix.

Xander Schauffele starts at 4-under, but won this event as a Tour rookie just two years ago. The 3-under mix includes World No. 2 Dustin Johnson, U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, and Hideki Matsuyama, who appears to have broken out of his surprising funk after posting two rounds of 63 in a third-place effort at Medinah.

Brandt Snedeker won the 2012 Tour Championship and is coming off finishes of T6 and T5 the past two weeks, and cannot be counted out, even at 2-under to start the week. Tommy Fleetwood has a number of high finishes in elite events this season, including a runner-up at the recent Open Championship, making him an intriguing name in the 1-under group.

This event really is wide open, especially if Thomas is unable to sustain his newfound momentum.


Power Rankings

Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka walk from the 13th tee during the second round of the BMW Championship at Aronimink GC on Sep 7, 2018 in Newtown Square, PA. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

No big surprises for the final power rankings of the 2019 PGA Tour season, especially at the very top, as both Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka will walk to the first tee on Thursday morning sitting at 10- and 7-under par, respectively.

Our No. 3 pick, Rory McIlroy, will enter Atlanta in fifth-place and tee off with about four-stroke average head start over half the field. And finally, Patrick Cantlay, now ranked No. 7 in the world, rounds out our top-4 power picks. The winner at the Memorial officially holds down the second spot behind Thomas, and will start the tournament at 8-under par.

One mild surprise in the top half of the rankings may be Adam Scott at No. 5. The Aussie is certainly in good form, posting two top-10s (5th, T9) in the opening legs of the playoffs, but he’ll enter Atlanta in 13th place (-3) and will be seven back of Thomas before he even tees off.

1. Brooks Koepka – Reigning Player of the Year who has posted mediocre finishes (T30, T24) in the two opening playoff tournaments. Has finished 6th and T26 in his only two appearances at East Lake.

2. Justin Thomas – The 10-time PGA Tour winner and 2017 FedExCup champion opens in the No. 1 position, as he seeks to match Tiger Woods as a two-time Cup champion. Has finished in the top-7 in each of his three starts.

3. Rory McIlroy – Another big name looking to become a two-time FedExCup champion, the 2016 winner owns a win and runner-up at East Lake. Starting out in 5th place (-5), a win would also give him three wins on the season, including the PGA Tour’s two bookend marquee events (PLAYERS and TOUR CHAMP).

4. Patrick Cantlay – Has played in only two TOUR Championships, and has never been a factor, but he’s playing on another level at the moment. A winner at the Memorial, the 27-year old star would love to make it a two-win season and cement himself as one of the very best in the world.

5. Adam Scott – Enters East Lake off top-10s (5, T9) in the opening two legs of the playoffs. Won in Atlanta in 2006, but has posted nothing better than T11 since it went to the FedExCup format. Seeking his first win since the 2016 WGC-Cadillac at Doral.

6. Jon Rahm – The Spaniard is coming off a T5 at the BMW – his fifth top-5 in his last seven starts. His other two results in this span? solo-7th and T11. So to say he’s hot is an understatement. Will start out at -4, six back of the lead. Owns a T11 and T7 in his only two starts at East Lake.

7. Hideki Matsuyama – Japanese star is finally returning to form following a year-long slump. Carded two 63s last week at Medinah en route to a solo-third finish. Owns two top-5 finishes at East lake in his last three starts.

8. Patrick Reed – Won the Northern Trust to break a lengthy winless drought, and, as a result, will enter East Lake in 4th place (-6) as he seeks to improve on a career-best T13 finish at the Tour’s playoff finale.

9. Tony Finau – Enters off a solo fourth-place finish at Medinah, although it was another disappointing, and rather uninspiring, result due to a Sunday finish that saw him lose ground – dropping from T2 (after 54 holes) to fourth. Finished T7 (2017) and T15 (2018) in his only two appearances.

10. Dustin Johnson – World No. 2 enters Atlanta off seven-straight finishes outside the top-10 – his worst slump since 2013. Seeks to rebound at a venue where he’s posted five top-10s and three top-5s.


Top Sleeper: Kevin Kisner

Rory McIlroy and Kevin Kisner
Rory McIlroy and Kevin Kisner check the the driver clubface of Kisner during the third round of the BMW Championship at Medinah CC No. 3 on Aug 17, 2019 in Medinah, IL. Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

Starting the week at 2-under par, eight strokes behind Justin Thomas, Kevin Kisner is going to have his work cut out for him, but there is a lot of reason to be optimistic about his chances.

He is coming in with good form, having not missed a cut in three months, and posting finishes of T9 and T12 the past two weeks against elite fields. He won the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play earlier this year, one of the more strategic events, and he has positive history at East Lake, having finished T3 here just two years ago.

It also helps that he is something of a local, as a South Carolina native who played his college golf at the University of Georgia. East Lake is not a course where the winner overpowers it; Kisner’s elite short game and his ability to hit fairways and greens make him an excellent fit.


End Quote

Justin Thomas
Justin Thomas celebrates after a chip-in birdie on the 14th hole during the third round of the BMW Championship at Medinah CC No. 3 on Aug 17, 2019 in Medinah, IL. Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Aiming For No. 1

“Absolutely. I want to be better than everybody else that walks the planet. Pretty good feeling. Had it for all of two weeks,” said Justin Thomas, when asked if he cares about his world ranking. Thomas, who moved from No. 10 to No. 5 with his win at the BMW Championship, held the No. 1 position for two weeks in May of 2018.


Full Field & Odds


Credits: OWGR, PGA Tour Media, Getty Images, Fast Scripts


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