The Tour Championship
There’s no disguising it was a poor week for us at the BMW Championship as for the second year running in this event we got hit by an injury withdrawal.
While last year it was Will Zalatoris’ back, which gave out this year it was the turn of Hideki Matsuyama to fail to stay the course. The Japanese star began strongly on Thursday however his opening round fell apart on the back nine and it was no surprise to learn of his withdrawal on Friday.
With our headline pick Jon Rahm never getting out of first gear and longshot Patrick Rodgers running out of steam after making the top 50 it was left to Sahith Theegala to fly our flag. Sadly though while the youngsters long game was in fine fettle his putter failed to co operate over the week and he was always just the few shots outside of the places before ultimately finishing 15th.
The event itself was won by Viktor Hovland who produced a scintillating course record 61 on Sunday, which included a back nine 28, to pick the pockets of Scottie Scheffler and Matt Fitzpatrick. It was an incredible spectacle from the Norwegian and quite possibly the round of the year and he now finds himself right on the heels of Scheffler heading to East Lake.
So onwards we go to the last week of the PGA Season at the Tour Championship.
The Tour Championship first debuted on the PGA Tour in 1987 before becoming the finale to the Fedex Cup Play Offs in 2007.
In its early years the event rotated through several different courses, however since 2004 it has been played continuously at East Lake GC in Atlanta, Georgia.
The event is contested by the Top 30 players in the Fedex Cup rankings after the completion of the second play-off event, The BMW Championship.
So, where to begin with this year’s Tour Championship? Well, firstly let’s have a quick recap of new scoring system that the PGA Tour chose in their wisdom chosen to implement four years ago.
As we know the PGA Tour felt that the scoring system that was previously in play for the Tour Championship was too confusing as there were two winners to be found on the week, the winner of The Fedex Cup and the winner of The Tour Championship golf tournament itself.
What it appears they didn’t like was that, if we take 2018’s tournament as an example, was Tiger Woods recording a memorable ‘comeback win’, a culmination of some really strong play through the second half the season in particular, while Justin Rose did enough to deservedly win the Fedex Cup based on his year long effort. This apparently wasn’t exciting enough for them!
Equally it seems they no longer wanted a situation like we had in 2016 whereby Dustin Johnson sat helplessly in the clubhouse wondering if his lacklustre performance over the week would be enough to hang on to the Fedex Cup, or whether Rory would pinch the event and the whole Fedex Cup title in a three way play off with Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell….
No again not exciting enough for them it would appear…Or, if we are to believe what we read, it would appear that they felt your average US viewer couldn’t follow a commentator saying “If Rory wins this play off he also wins the Fedex Cup, but if he doesn’t DJ does”….Not something I accept to be honest…
So, away they went and after consulting the greatest minds they could they came up with a handicap system for the week whereby the leader of the Fedex Cup going in to East Lake would start on a score of -10 and would be given a two shot lead over the guy in second who would start on -8, three shots over the guy in third, four over the guy in fourth and so on, down to a ten shot lead over the players starting from 26th – 30th who would start on Level Par.
It would then be a case that the player who finishes the tournament with the lowest aggregate score including their handicapped start would win the golf tournament and with it the Fedex Cup.
So in a nutshell in their quest to make things more exciting the PGA Tour have devised a system where in principal the best player in the field gets a start over everyone else…
As you probably don’t need me to tell you I am not a huge fan of the new system. With four events having now been played with this format we are starting to get a small picture of what to expect. Granted we got pretty exciting conclusions in its first year and again last year with Rory McIlroy taking home the spoils on both occasions.
In 2019 McIlroy started the week on 5- under in fifth place and five shots back, while last year he began on 4- under in sixth place and six shots back and allowing for this I am sure the powers that be would say there is room for someone to make a run from behind.
Equally though the 2020 winner Dustin Johnson had started the week in first place on 10- under as had 2022 winner Patrick Cantlay, re-enforcing the point of view that basically there are only five or six players at the most who can realistically win going in to the week and that to me isn’t how you should set up a golf tournament!
Anyway, enough of my griping…lets have a look at the Tour Championship Leaderboard as it stands on Monday afternoon through zero holes….
S Scheffler -10
V Hovland -8
R McIlroy -7
J Rahm -6
L Glover -5
M Homa, P Cantlay, W Clark, B Harman, M Fitzpatrick -4
T Fleetwood, K Bradley, X Schauffele, R Fowler, R Henley -3
T Kim, S Im, T Finau, C Conners, S W Kim -2
T Moore, A Schenk, C Morikawa, J Day, N Taylor -1
S Burns, T Hatton, J Spieth, S Straka, E Grillo Level Par.
At the time of writing all 30 of the players who have qualified are teeing it up with no withdrawals.
There are two markets being priced up by most firms this week, ‘To Win The Fedex Cup’ and ‘To Shoot The Lowest 72 hole’ score, not unsurprisingly the number one in the standings heading in to the week Scottie Scheffler heads up the first market at restrictive odds while in the ‘lowest 72 hole score’ market Scheffler and Rory McIlroy vie for favouritism.
East Lake is a par 70 measuring around 7400yds.
The greens are MiniVerde Bermuda.
The course was originally opened in 1907 however it was then completely redesigned by Donald Ross in 1913.
Other Donald Ross designs used on tour include Sedgefield Country Club, the annual home of the Wyndham Championship, Detroit GC the host of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, and Aronimink, which hosted the 2018 BMW Championship and the 2010 & 2011 AT&T Nationals.
East Lake is a tough test with finding fairways and even more so the right areas on the greens being the key to success here.
The main reasons for this is that it is important to leave yourself with the right uphill putts on the fast running surfaces to be able to be aggressive when putting.
If you do miss the greens here you find yourself in the tightly mown, run off areas and struggling to make par.
Historically of course the most important thing to address this week was how the event ties in with the conclusion of the Fedex Cup as in essence we had two tournaments going on at once, The Tour Championship and The Fedex Cup Race.
As discussed earlier though this all changed as winning one now means winning the other.
Having said that with the ‘who will shoot the lowest 72 hole score’ market being available this week it is still I believe important to give some attention to how the pressure of winning the Fedex Cup has effected peoples performances here over the years and with this in mind I thought it would be good to look at the past winners of the Tour Championship and see how many of them won the Fedex Cup as well.
You will see these players listed below and I have * those who also won the Fedex Cup.
So let’s take a look at the ten winners of the Tour Championship from 2009 through to 2018.
The winners of these events have been as follows;
2018 T Woods
2017 X Schauffele
2016 R McIlroy*
2015 J Spieth*
2014 B Horschel*
2013 H Stenson*
2012 B Snedeker*
2011 B Haas*
2010 J Furyk*
2009 P Mickelson
As we can see then seven of the ten players who won the Tour Championship also won the Fedex Cup.
This however doesn’t quite give us the full picture as if you drill down a bit further only 4 of these 7 players ranked inside the top 5 in the Fedex Cup standings going in to the week and therefore you would say were genuinely focused on winning both the Fedex Cup and the TC rather than just trying to win a golf tournament with anything else being a bonus.
These 4 were Spieth, Horschel, Stenson & Snedeker. The first three all ranked 2nd in the Fedex Cup standings going in to the week at East Lake, whilst Sneds entered the week in 5th place.
In other words over that ten year period only 4 players ranked in the top 5 in the Fedex Cup standings going in to the week went on to win the Tour Championship.
Furthermore during this ten year period not one single player ranked 1st in the Fedex Cup standings going in to the week has won the Tour Championship.
Now and perhaps more pertinently let’s take a look at how the last four years events have played out under the new system.
Below I have listed the top five finishers from 2019, 2020 & 2021 along with their ‘starting scores’ going in to the week.
1 R McIlroy -18 [-5]
2 X Schauffele - 14 [-4]
T3 B Koepka -13 [-7]
T3 J Thomas -13 [-10]
5 P Casey -9 [-2]
1 D Johnson -21 [-10]
T2 X Schauffele -18 [-3]
T2 J Thomas -18 [-7]
4 J Rahm -17 [-8]
5 S Scheffler -14 [-2]
1 P Cantlay -21 [–10]
2 J Rahm - 20 [-6]
3 K Na -16 [-2]
4 J Thomas -15 [-4]
T5 X Schauffele -14 [-2]
T 5 V Hovland -14 [-3]
1 R McIlroy -21 [-4]
T2 SJ Im -20 [-4]
T2 S Scheffler -20 [-10]
4 X Schauffele -18 [-6]
T5 M Homa -17 [-2]
T5 J Thomas -17 [-3]
As we can see from these tables in the first two years only one player in each year who started the week outside of the top five was able to breach the top four finishing places and that man was the same player on each occasion, Xander Schauffele, who is undoubtedly something of a course specialist. In 2021 though two further players who started outside of the top five Justin Thomas and Kevin Na who started on -4 and -2 respectively were able to breach the final top five. Last year however it was a completely different picture as four of the six players who were top five and ties started outside of the top five places. This included the first two home Rory McIlroy and Sungjae Im who both started the week on 4- under.
Ultimately though if you are looking to back the winner of the event/Fedex Cup the message under the new format is simple, focus on the top five players heading in.
After the temperatures the players endured in Memphis recently we look set for another really warm week in East Lake with the mercury topping 100 degrees every day.
While you can never rule out pop up storms in this part of the world at this time of year, particularly in these temperatures, the week does look set to be dry as a whole.
Wind does not look to be an issue across the week as a whole although Saturday does show the possibility of gusts of 15-20mph at the time of writing.
As I always say though…this could all change!
I have gone with three selections this week as follows, one purely in the ‘to win the Fedex Cup’ market, one in both the ‘low 72 hole score’ market and ‘to win the Fedex Cup’ and one purely in the ‘low 72 hole score’ market;
TO WIN THE FEDEX CUP – PATRICK CANTLAY – 2pts E/W 20/1– 1/5 odds 1st 5. - FINISHED 5th
I will start this week by taking a chance on Patrick Cantlay to make up the ground on those in front of him and in doing so to bag his second Fedex Cup trophy.
With Scheffler having faltered here last year as well as having lost out on Sunday I can see him being vulnerable with the target on his back, while Hovland will do well to continue from where he left off in Illinois now that he is firmly in the spotlight here.
With my doubts over the front two then it would seem a perfect opportunity for Rory McIlroy to bag the Fedex Cup once more, however with the Northern Irishman finding ways to take two steps forward and then two steps back again most weeks it is the 2021 Fedex Champion who appeals at the odds.
Cantlay will start this week on 4- under and therefore six shots behind the leader Scheffler heading in to the week. A tall order no doubt but as we saw from Rory McIlroy last year one that is not insurmountable.
Patrick arrives this week in East Lake yet to post a win on the season however having just lost out in a play off to Lucas Glover in Memphis a couple of weeks ago we know his game is in fine fettle.
Last week at Olympia Fields with all eyes on Cantlay as he went in search of a BMW ‘three peat’ perhaps not unsurprisingly, and particularly on the back of the near miss the week before, he stalled slightly, however 15th was certainly no disgrace, particularly as he was seventh for the week from tee to green with only the putter, for which he ranked 37th letting him down.
This week then Patrick returns to East Lake where he landed the Fedex Cup a couple of years ago slightly under the radar, however as a player who is more than capable of producing the type of prodigious scoring that we saw from Hovland in Chicago it may just be that starting a few shots back will help him to produce the aggressive play needed.
With each of Patrick’s last eight rounds at East Lake par or better we know he can handle the course. Furthermore the fact he played so well on a similar par 70 track featuring the comparable Zoyzia fairways in Memphis only two weeks ago offers great encouragement.
With three wins in the play offs over the past two years we know this is a time of year the American comes in to his own and I am happy to roll the dice on him to end what has no doubt been a frustrating 2023 for him on a really positive note.
WINNER WITHOUT STARTING STROKES – XANDER SCHAUFFELE – 12/1 – 2.5pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 5. - FINISHED T1st
+ TO WIN THE FEDEX CUP – 1.5pts E/W 28/1 – 1/5 odds 1st 5. - FINISHED 2nd
My second selection this week is Xander Schauffele.
After ending his winless drought in 2022 with two solo victories Schauffele has reverted to much of what we had seen from him in previous years in 2023, some strong performances, which have been enough to see him reach this week but no wins, with his biggest missed opportunity coming at Quail Hollow where he stalled on Sunday alongside Wyndham Clark.
Last week at the BMW Xander produced another solid week finishing eighth, ranking third off the tee and ninth from tee to green.
As a result of that performance Schauffele now heads in to this week on a 3- under starting total and in a log jam tie for 11th place in the standings and seven shots behind the leader Scottie Scheffler, meaning if he is going to lift the Fedex Cup he will have to manage something no one has done yet in the four years this format has been running, win from more than six shots back.
Arriving in good form then and with his Ryder Cup place all locked up Schauffele should be able to free wheel and you could not choose a track better suited to him this week than East Lake for him to do this.
To validate this further we only need to take a look at Xander’s record here over the years since he first teed it up in the event in 2017. Firstly on that debut appearance when the event was still a good old fashioned stroke play tournament Xander posted a win then the following year under the same format he finished seventh.
Move on then to 2019 and 2020 and on both occasions under the new format he improved his starting position to eventually finish second with the 2020 effort seeing him post the lowest 72 hole score.
In 2021 meanwhile he was at it again working his way up the leaderboard to finish fifth notching the third best ‘actual’ score across the week. Meanwhile last year although just narrowly missing out placing in this market he produced another strong week to finish sixth out of those who teed it up, in the 72 hole score market.
To sum up then and in six visits here Schauffele has twice posted the best 72 hole aggregate score and in his other four appearances has finished second, third, sixth and seventh in this market. Clearly Xander loves East Lake.
When putting up Xander in this market last year I did note my slight concern in that he was is in the best position he has been over the recent years coming in to the week with regards to winning the Fedex Cup and that could have added some extra pressure to his performance.
This year though this is not the case and I expect a relaxed Schauffele to produce another big week in Georgia.
Finally while Xander looks rock solid to me in the ’72 hole low score’ market, with five each way places on offer and at a 15pt greater price I will cover him off at smaller stakes in the ‘to win the Fedex Cup’ market as well, as if he is to shoot the low score we can safely say he will have pushed himself in to the very higher reaches of the leaderboard.
WINNER WITHOUT STARTING STROKES – SUNGJAE IM – 28/1 - 1.5pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 5. - FINISHED 21st
Finally this week I will wrap things up by siding with Sungjae Im, purely in the low 72 hole score market.
2023 has been a strange year for Sungjae as ever since he headed over to Korea the week before the PGA Championship to bag a win on home soil he has lost his way missing five cuts in nine starts from the years second Major onwards.
A 14th place finish at the Wyndham though seemed to spark Sungjae back in to life and the last two weeks has seen him finish sixth at the Fedex St Jude and seventh at the BMW posting nothing worse than a 69 along the way.
At both of those events the Korean’s long game looked really strong, ranking sixth from tee to green in Memphis and fifth in Chicago with only the putter holding him back slightly.
On to this week then and with momentum building Sungjae gets to sleep in his own bed as he now makes his home in Atlanta and having finished second here last year in the low 72 hole score market, posting rounds of 67 65 66 & 66 it would seem that playing in his own backyard agrees with him.
Starting this week on 2- under and eight shots back you would think that Sungjae is too far back to harbour serious ambitions of bagging the Fedex Cup, however with his game seemingly coming in to form very nicely I can see him producing a really strong week.