The finale of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs starts today at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia.
All 3o players in the field have a mathematical shot at the $10 million FedEx Cup prize, while the top 5 players in the points standings (Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Paul Casey) control their own destiny; if any of them win the tournament, they’re guaranteed the season-ending FedEx Cup prize as well. And on top of all that, there’s still one U.S. Ryder Cup slot available, to be announced Sunday night at halftime of Sunday Night Football on NBC.
The 30 players got here after surviving post-event cutdowns at the Barclays, Deutsche Bank, and BMW. The Tour Championship is a no-cut event, which obviously makes sense with just 30 men playing, and it means that, more than normal, just about anyone in the field can win. Even a rough opening round or two can be corrected by going really low on the weekend.
East Lake Golf Club was the home course of Bobby Jones, and has served as the host of the Tour Championship every year since 2004. Is that because it’s a legendary course with plenty of history, including the 1963 Ryder Cup won by the USA behind playing captain Arnold Palmer? Sure.
But is it mostly because Coca-Cola is a major sponsor of the tour and the event, and the course is about 15 minutes from Coke’s headquarters, meaning they get to treat plenty of clients to the tournament action?
Much of the talk leading up to the tournament has been the flipping of the front and back nine, done mostly to make the 18th a par 5 instead of a par 3. But that change probably isn’t going to make much difference until the 72nd hole on Sunday. The players will face a classic Donald Ross designed par-70, stretched out to more than 7,300 yards. In addition to the length, the rough serves as the course’s main defense, with fairways rewarding players more here than elsewhere on tour.
Oh, and there’s an island-ish green par 3, too, that might play from 200 yards.
So, who’s going to win?
Well, that’s still a pretty foolish thing to try to answer, as always. But with the more limited field, it’s going to be someone you’ve likely heard of, at least. I’ll start at No. 30 and work my way to No. 1, with the usual caveat that golf is a silly game and just about anyone can win any week.
30. Jhonattan Vegas
The powerful Venezuelan was only eligible for one major this season, the PGA, but by virtue of making it to East Lake he’ll be automatically qualified for all four majors next year. (Which applies to everyone in the field this weekend, yet another incentive provided by the playoff system.) He did win the RBC Canadian Open in August, and could very well play well, but he lands at the bottom because someone has to.
29. Sean O’Hair
A renaissance year for O’Hair, who started the playoffs with a T2 at the Barclays, then held on to make the finals, finishing T53 and T52 in the other two playoff events. It’s hard to imagine his year finishing on the sort of high note a Tour Championship win would mean; plus he hasn’t won a tournament since 2011.
28. Jason Dufner
Duf has his typical machine-like swing, but his putter has killed him this season. He ranks just 168th in strokes gained putting. That’s not good. And likely not good enough against a field like this one.
27. Charl Schwartzel
Similar to Dufner, Charl has a great swing, and it’s worked well this year, getting him into East Lake as the 30th man. But his putting numbers (128th in strokes gained on the green) make it tough to rank him much higher.
26. Hideki Matsuyama
There’s a trend here, if you’re reading closely. Matsuyama is masterful in the long game but very poor around and on the greens. Could he go on a tear and capitalize on his overall ability? Sure. But probably not.
25. Matt Kuchar
Yes, he’s one of the top-ranked players in the world, yes he was just named to the Ryder Cup team, yes he played college golf at Georgia Tech and therefore has experience on the property. But I just don’t think he’s going to win. He’s played plenty here before and hasn’t really contended. Plus, he’s normally worn down by this part of the calendar, just in time to play poorly at the Ryder Cup.
24. J.B. Holmes
He hits it far. T4 at BMW. Generally streaky on the green.
23. Brandt Snedeker
He putts it well, and won in 2012 en route to the FedEx Cup title. Hasn’t won since February.
22. William McGirt
Won the Memorial. T20 at the BMW, but missed the cut the week prior.
21. Phil Mickelson
Whoa, lefty comes in pretty far down the list, despite being a two-time winner at East Lake. But he’s not realistically playing for much, and it’s not a real major, nor is it the Ryder Cup, and if 2016 Phil isn’t motivated to that degree it’s rare that he contends to win.
20. Kevin Na
He’s hot right now, and in theory on the periphery of the Ryder Cup conversation. Could surprise.
19. Emiliano Grillo
A dangerous player, putting together a strong finish to a strong season, but he hasn’t managed a win since last fall. This would be a big stage to get back to the winner’s circle.
East Lake is PURE! Not one piece of grass out of place.. Never played a course with no divots before
18. Justin Thomas
Reportedly playing for a Ryder Cup spot. Rarely lays up. Incredibly talented on the right day.
17. Daniel Berger
Reportedly playing for a Ryder Cup spot. Super aggressive. Incredibly talented on the right day.
16. Si Woo Kim
He just won the Wyndham, but it’s his first Tour Championship.
— Noticiasgolf.es (@NoticiasgolfESP) August 8, 2016
15. Russell Knox
He’s right in the middle. Could very well contend, having won the Travelers in August and finished strong (T15 and T17) in the last two playoff events.
14. Kevin Kisner
He’s ranked pretty highly here, which might be a bit odd for some, but he’s well-rounded and playing (and putting) fairly well.
13. Kevin Chappell
Another Kevin ranked pretty highly here, but he’s played some of the best golf of his career of late, and could very well break through.
12. Bubba Watson
Bubba is the likely final captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup, but he could very easily torpedo his own chances if he melts down this week. And, as it’s Bubba, that’s always possible.
11. Gary Woodland
Woodland is crazy long, and has played very well throughout the playoff events. If he hits it straight, his length could give him a very good chance. This has been some hard-hitting analysis.
10. Jimmy Walker
It’s risky to rank Walker this low, since he won the PGA after I didn’t rank him among the guys I thought had a chance to win. (I’ve barely recovered from the shame.)
9. Roberto Castro
This is probably the craziest ranking on the list, banking on current form more than science tells me I should, probably. But why not?
8. Jordan Spieth
He’s the defending champion here, and the defending FedEx Cup champion. He’s played some solid golf in the playoffs, and is probably too low here. But he has to be, because I had to get the next guy higher up the list.
7. Ryan Moore
That’s right. After a season-long campaign featuring me ranking Ryan Moore fairly highly for all four majors (he made the cut in three, but failed to contend) Moore took time off this summer around the birth of his second child, and then played some fantastic golf after the PGA Championship, including a win at the John Deere Classic and two top-ten finishes to start the playoffs, vaulting him into contention for a Ryder Cup spot.
He fell off a bit at the BMW, but that was his seventh week in a row playing, and when he was last at the Tour Championship in 2012, he finished T3. He does have a shot at the $10 million, though even with a win he’d need a bit of help, but a win would mean either a trip to Hazeltine next weekend for the Ryder Cup or a public outcry if he was snubbed Sunday night.
This pick might make me look brilliant or incredibly stupid. Smart money is on the latter, because it’s probably closer to the truth.
6. Adam Scott
He’s got a great swing, and is incredibly handsome. It normally serves him quite well. It will likely continue to do so here.
5. Rory McIlroy
He’s found some old flatstick magic, having switched back to a Scotty Cameron after the demise of Nike Golf’s equipment business. That’s scary for the field at East Lake and the Americans at the Ryder Cup.
4. Paul Casey
The Englishman has had a fantastic return to form this season, which is welcome, as he was one of the stars of the sport before he succumbed to various injuries, including a shoulder injury sustained while snowboarding. Wasn’t selected to the European Ryder Cup team, which is a boon for the American chances.
3. Jason Day
As always with Jason Day, he’s essentially a perfect player. He doesn’t have a weakness. Crazy long. Great touch. Hits it straight. Capable of rolling in putts of great length. If anything, the one thing that can be criticized is his affinity for the dramatic, and I don’t mean going for the green in two. Whether it’s a weird array of health concerns of off course issues, if something is bothering Day even the slightest bit, he’s going to be talking to the media about it to build in an excuse for an off performance. Again, he’s a fantastic player. But come on.
2. Patrick Reed
Started off the playoff series by breaking the NYSE gavel. Path of destruction only grew from there, winning the Barclays, finishing T5 at the Deutsche Bank, and then capping off the run with a T15 at the BMW. Very well could dominate for his first FedEx Cup.
But he’s not ranked No. 1.
1. Dustin Johnson
So, he’s the best player in the world right now, right? He’s closing in on Jason Day’s official #1 ranking, but if you’re taking the best player, right now, it’s DJ. He’s still stupid long. He’s won a major this season, as well as the WGC at Brigdestone. Ran the table at the three playoff events to the tune of T18-T8-1. Nothing about the course should trouble him that much, least of all the length. And there’s no USGA official ready to shove him into a pond on the 18th, or snap his putter in two, or whatever it is they’re dreaming up to torment him in the future.
Dustin Johnson is the pick.
But, more than ever with such a limited field, it really is anyone’s tournament.