2017 Tour Championship Primer: Storylines, History, TV, Field

PGA Tour golfers are known for being extremely well compensated for their best efforts, but nobody is too rich to sneeze at a $10 million grand prize. That, along with immeasurable prestige and a highly coveted trophy, is what awaits the man with the most points after this week’s TOUR Championship, the finale of the 2017 FedExCup Playoffs.

Current FedExCup leader Jordan Spieth comes into the TOUR Championship with the most FedExCup points, but as part of the re-distribution of points heading into the finale, the 5421 points he accumulated over 22 events becomes just 2000, adding many more players into the championship mix who otherwise would not be.

In fact, the points are set up so that the entire top 5 of the standings controls their own destiny. Those five players (in order) are Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Marc Leishman, and Jon Rahm.

A TOUR Championship victory from anyone in that most skilled group means an automatic FedExCup Championship, the richest prize in professional sports.

That does not mean, however, that only five men are in championship contention; all 30 players in the field, from No. 1 Jordan Spieth to No. 30 Jason Dufner, have a path to PGA gold, it is just that those outside the top five need some help from the field.

Eleven furious months of scratching and clawing has come to this: four final rounds of competition in its highest form: a field concentrated with the elite of the elite on the PGA Tour.


TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY

The FedExCup Playoffs have only existed since 2007, but the roots of the TOUR Championship go back 20 years beyond that.

The first TOUR Championship was held in 1987 San Antonio, Texas, and was won by the legendary Tom Watson by two strokes over 59 Club Member Chip Beck. Other winners of the most exclusive PGA event include Curtis Strange, Paul Azinger, Tom Lehman, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, and Phil Mickelson. Only Woods and Mickelson have multiple victories, with two wins apiece.

This year’s TOUR Championship venue is East Lake Golf Club, which has been the regular event host since 2004. Located in Atlanta, Georgia, East Lake was established in 1904, and its prominent claim to fame is being the course that Bobby Jones grew up on. The 1930 Grand Slam winner is believed to have played both his first and last rounds there.

As much attention as the “Madden Cover Curse” gets, a bigger harbinger of future misfortune has largely escaped the eyes of the sports public. Rory McIlroy will not be defending his 2016 FedExCup Championship this year, as he failed to qualify after a season that fell well short of his sky-high standards.

Although with just two defending FedExCup champions making the 30-man TOUR Championship field in the past 10 editions of the playoffs, the four-time major winner is surprisingly not an anomaly.


THE SKINNY

Name: East Lake Golf Club
Where: Atlanta, Georgia
Vitals: 7385 yards, par 70
Architect: Tom Bendelow, Donald Ross, Rees Jones
Purse: $8,750,000
Winning Share: $1,575,000
FedExCup Points: 2000


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

The winner of the TOUR Championship is Rory McIlroy. Coming into the playoffs at No. 6 in the FedExCup standings, McIlroy defeated Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell in a thrilling four-hole playoff to take both the tournament and the entire FedExCup.

As the fourth round was nearing a close, it appeared that Dustin Johnson, who was No. 1 in the standings would be the FedExCup Champion, as he finished T6 and neither Moore nor Chappell were in the top five, but Rory holed an awe-inspiring 137 yard eagle on the par-4 16th and then finished par-birdie to sneak into the extra hole affair that he would eventually win.

RECENT WINNERS

2016: Rory McIlroy
2015: Jordan Spieth
2014: Billy Horschel
2013: Henrik Stenson
2012: Brandt Snedeker
2011: Bill Haas

All six of these players, in addition to 2010 TOUR Championship winner Jim Furyk also won the FedExCup that year. Phil Mickelson in 2009 was the last winner of this event to not also take the Cup title.

TOURNAMENT RECORDS

Lowest Final Score: 257 (-23), Tiger Woods, 2007
Low Round: 60, Zach Johnson, 2007 (3rd round)


TV & ONLINE

Round 1: 1-6:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 2: 1-6:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 3: 12:30-2:30 PM (Golf Channel); 2:30-6:00 PM (NBC)
Round 4: 12:00-1:30 PM (Golf Channel); 1:30-6:00 PM (NBC)
Online: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram


STORYLINE 1: WIN AND YOU WIN

A result of trial and error, the FedExCup Playoffs were tinkered with considerably in its early going. The Tour felt a big change was especially necessitated after the 2008 playoffs, where Vijay Singh had so many points that he clinched the FedExCup title well before the TOUR Championship, sucking all the drama and intrigue from the final playoff event.

Since then, points are reset before the TOUR Championship. In its current system, first place is reset with 2000 points, second with 1800, and decreasing down to No. 30.

This is done to give more players a reasonable chance to win the FedExCup in the final event of the playoffs. In fact, anyone in the top five going into East Lake automatically wins the FedExCup with a victory.

Players aggressively fought for those positions, and after three playoff events, the five leaders are as follows:

1. JORDAN SPIETH

Despite being just turning 24 years old in late July, Spieth could become the second player (Tiger Woods) with two FedExCup Championships with an East Lake victory this week.

The 2015 FedExCup winner came into that year’s TOUR Championship at No. 2 in the standings, but passed No. 1 Jason Day with a four-stroke win over the trio of Danny Lee, Justin Rose, and Henrik Stenson.

After a 2016 season that fell mildly short of the prodigy’s lofty, almost-unreasonable standard, Spieth had a banner 2017, highlighted by 11 top 10s in just 22 events with three victories, including a major triumph at The Open Championship.

The world No. 2 led the Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green, scoring average, and birdie average. His $9.1 million in 2017 earnings is nearly $4 million more than last season.

Spieth did not win any of the 2017 playoff events, but finished highly in all three, taking runner-up to both Dustin Johnson (The Northern Trust) and Justin Thomas (Dell Technologies Championship), while finishing T7 at last week’s BMW Championship.

Amazingly, this will be Spieth’s fifth appearance at East Lake, as he has made it to the playoff finale in all five of his Tour seasons.


2. JUSTIN THOMAS

A close friend of Spieth’s, Justin Thomas was the hottest golfer on the planet coming into last week’s BMW Championship. In his previous three starts, he had a win at the PGA Championship, a T6 at The Northern Trust, and a win at the Dell Technologies Championship, all elite-field events.

Conway Farms, the site of last week’s BMW Championship, was apparently what the rest of the field needed to cool off the 24-year-old. Thomas got off to a great start with an opening-round 4-under 67, but was defeated by the course the next three rounds, shooting 70-71-71 to finish T47.

Thomas has run hot-and-cold at different points this year, starting the season with a victory binge, and missing three straight cuts at one point midseason, but when he has been on, he has been the best player on Tour this season. This may have been best shown when Thomas shot a third-round 9-under 63 in the third round of the U.S. Open.

The Kentucky native’s eleven top 10 finishes, tied with Spieth for the season lead, can be credited largely to a pristine iron game.

This will be Thomas’ second appearance at East Lake, finishing T6 in last year’s edition.


3. DUSTIN JOHNSON

The famously stoic World No. 1 Dustin Johnson might be the toughest mystery to crack coming into the playoff finale. With three straight victories in a stretch over February and March, DJ looked to be on a different level than the rest of the planet, and at one point, his lead over the man who was No. 2 in the world rankings was nearly as large as the point difference between No. 2 and No. 30.

After a freak injury on Masters eve forced Johnson to withdraw from Augusta, he cooled off, and from March to late August, we mostly saw his B or C game, well short of what he flashed early on.

Then, at The Northern Trust, the first leg of the playoffs, Johnson triumphed in a thrilling playoff within the playoff, winning on the first extra hole over Jordan Spieth. Johnson remarked afterwards that he felt like he was back to his pre-Masters form, a potentially scary prospect for the rest of the Tour.

However, his performances at the second and third playoff events were incredibly inconsistent. At the Dell Technologies Championship, he was the first-round leader after an opening 66, a round he would replicate on Saturday.

Unfortunately, he looked lost in the other two rounds, shooting a second-round 72 and a final-round 73 to finish T18.

The BMW was more of the same, as a 71-72 start at a course the field was obliterating gave him too deep a hole to climb. Despite shooting 69-64 over the weekend, DJ finished T33.

Johnson should be extra motivated to win the FedExCup after it just barely eluded him last year. If not for a 137-yard hole-out eagle late on Sunday by Rory McIlroy, Johnson is likely going into East Lake this year as the defending champion.


4. MARC LEISHMAN

In seven of his past eight rounds, the 33-year-old Leishman was, by far, the best player on the course. At the Dell Technologies Championship, he found himself in an intense Sunday battle with Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, and even led at the turn, but a poor back nine dropped him to third place.

Then, at last week’s BMW Championship, Leishman was a wire-to-wire victor, opening with unbelievable rounds of 62 and 64, and then staying well out in front all weekend with scores of 68 and 67.

Tee-to-green, Leishman is playing the best golf of his life, and if he can keep that same form at East Lake, he will likely finish the tournament $10 million richer.

Surprisingly, this will be Leishman’s first attempt at the TOUR Championship, but with two victories on the season, and four top 10s in his last seven events, Leishman’s playoff disappointments are not much of a consideration.


5. JON RAHM

Playing in his first FedExCup Playoffs, 22-year-old phenom Jon Rahm has executed an unprecedented performance. With finishes of T3, T4, and T5 that included 11 of 12 rounds in the 60s, Rahm is in an enviable position with an overall top five spot.

For most playoff rookies in their early 20s, this kind of performance would be shocking, but with the regular season Rahm had, no one is surprised by where he currently sits.

Ranked No. 5 in the world, Rahm had ten top 10 finishes in 2017, including a win at the Farmers Insurance Open, two runner-ups, and two third places. He also dominated a European Tour event, winning the DDF Irish Open by six strokes back in early July.

At No. 2 on Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, Rahm’s driver gives him an advantage that very little of the Tour can touch.


STORYLINE 2: PLAYER OF THE YEAR BATTLE

Realistically, the race to be named PGA Tour Player of the Year is down to two players: Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

Adding an extra wave of intrigue to the TOUR Championship, this event may end up deciding which of those two is declared the best of 2017. Coincidentally, the two are coming into the playoff finale at No. 1 and No. 2 in the FedExCup standings.

With five victories on the season, Thomas is guaranteed to finish the season with more wins than Jordan Spieth, who has three wins in 2017, but simply having more victories might not be enough.

Both players have a major championship on the season, which is usually a POTY prerequisite, but if Spieth were to win this week his resume is arguably better. The young Texan would have four victories, including a major and a playoff event, in addition to the FedExCup.

Voters might feel that body of work would trump Thomas’ five-win season, which includes a fall season win in Malaysia, and two wins during the Hawaii swing in January. If Spieth stays out front in the standings, the debate could be intense.


OTHER NOTABLES AT EAST LAKE

Rickie Fowler (No. 6)

Poor Rickie. The extremely popular 28-year-old came into the BMW Championship ranked 6th in the FedExCup standings. He finished T2 at Conway Farms, and is STILL 6th.

Spieth, Thomas, and Dustin Johnson were well in front of him to begin the week. His tremendous result did jump him ahead of No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama, but he was not quite able to pass Rahm, and by winning the tournament, Marc Leishman vaulted into 4th.

Fowler had a disappointing 2017 majors season, but a FedExCup Championship would give validation to an otherwise incredible season. His best performance at East Lake was a solo-eighth place finish in 2014.


Justin Rose (No. 8)

After losing a Masters playoff to Sergio Garcia back in April, Rose went into a terrible slump, finishing no better than T54 in any of his six starts before The Northern Trust. The playoffs, however, appear to have reinvigorated him.

Rose was one of just three players (Spieth, Rahm) to place in the top 10 of all three playoff events, finishing T10, T10, T2 respectively. He had just three bogeys in four rounds at Conway Farms, tied for the best in the field, a big reason he was able to jump from 17th to 8th in the standings.


Brooks Koepka (No. 9)

The 2017 U.S. Open Champion Koepka created little buzz over his first 11 playoff rounds, but after a final-round 8-under 63 at the BMW Championship where he birdied nine holes despite hitting just five fairways, he may be rounding back into form at the perfect time.

With his length off the tees and touch on the greens, the 27-year-old Florida State product is a big threat to win his second elite-field event of the season.


Jason Day (No. 15)

The list of most disappointing golfers in 2017 begins and ends with Jason Day, who started the year at No. 1 in the world, but injury and family issues were the main culprits in a season with just $2.8 million in earnings, after making $17.5 million over the previous two seasons combined.

However, he has looked much better as of late, contending at the PGA Championship, placing T6 at The Northern Trust, and finishing solo-4 at last week’s BMW Championship.

Perhaps most encouraging for Day: his 95 putts at Conways Farms were the fewest of any Tour player in any tournament this year. Everyone knows he can go low, but can he avoid the big numbers for four consecutive days? We have not seen that Day in a while.


Patrick Cantlay (No. 29)

When he sunk a clutch birdie on the 72nd hole last week at Conway Farms, the 25-year-old Cantlay became one of just two rookies (No. 26 Xander Schauffele) to make it to East Lake, despite playing in just 12 tournaments in 2017, the fewest of anyone in the field.

Cantlay’s form has been tremendous in his first playoffs, as he has posted finishes of T10, T13, and T9 respectively. At No. 29 in the current standings, he will need a LOT of help from the field, but nothing looks impossible with what Cantlay has overcome this season.

Joel Cook

Joel Cook is Pro Golf Weekly's Lead Writer. He is a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America.



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