Tour Championship: World number one ready to bloom at East Lake
We're off East Lake this week for the final event of the 2017/18 PGA Tour season and the FedEx Cup decider. Read our man's detailed preview ahead of Thursday's start here...
“Brand new world number one, Justin Rose, is my idea of the man to beat. He plays Donald Ross designed tracks better than anyone and he’ll be desperate to put his finish at Aronimink behind him. He’s bang in form playing at a venue that suits and at number two in the FedEx Cup Standings, he has just the right profile given four of the last five FedEx Cup winners began the final week in that position.”
Tom Watson won the first edition of the Tour Championship, back in 1987, when it was known as the Nabisco Championship. Originally played in November, it was designed as a showcase event to round off the PGA Tour season with only the top-30 on the money list in attendance and the event saw its fair share of drama. The four editions that followed Watson' inaugural victory all went to a playoff and some stellar names are on the trophy but at the turn of the century, getting the very best in the world to turn up was proving difficult, if not impossible.
Nobody could really blame the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson for not turning up. The majors were all done and dusted and they felt it was wind down time but something had to be done as it was starting to look a bit farcical. Having an event to showcase the year's stars when the stars weren't willing to line-up was a problem that needed solving and so the FedEx Cup Playoff Series was born.
First staged in 2007, the FedEx Cup Playoff Series consists of four events. The top-125 on the Fed-Ex Cup standings line-up in the first event of the series, The Northern Trust, and they're whittled down to 100 for the second event - the Dell Technologies Championship before the top-70 in the standings then move on to the BMW Championship where we lose another 40 before the top-30 in the standings play for the FedEx Cup in this event.
After the first two FedEx Cup Series' turned into damp squibs, with Tiger Woods in 2007 and Vijay Singh in 2008 entering the Tour Championship with unassailable leads, the format was tweaked again to make it more competitive. The scores are reset before the Tour Championship and if any of the top-five in the standings win the this event, they'll also win the FedEx Cup. It's a little more complicated for those ranked 6-30 but they can still win the FedEx Cup if others above them perform poorly. It's more unlikely the further down the standings you begin the week though and Patton Kizzire in 30th place needs all sorts of help from those above him.
Here's a link to all the different scenarios of how each of the 30 can win the FedEx Cup.
The changes made have had the desired effect and six of the last seven Tour Championship winners have also won the FedEx Cup. The only exception came last year when Justin Thomas, who finished second to Xander Schauffele at East Lake, finished up winning the FedEx Cup.
There is talk of the format changing again next year with the FedEx Cup leader going in to the Tour Championship with a start. Hopefully they'll have a rethink.
Initially a nomadic event, taking in such splendours as Pinehurst, Pebble Beach and Hilton Head, to name but three, the Tour Championship has found its permanent home at East Lake and that's been the venue since 2004.
First 11 FedEx Cup Winners
2007 - Tiger Woods
2008 - Vijay Singh
2009 - Tiger Woods
2010 - Jim Furyk
2011 - Bill Haas
2012 - Brandt Snedeker
2013 - Henrik Stenson
2014 - Billy Horschel
2015 - Jordan Spieth
2016 - Rory McIlroy
2017 - Justin Thomas
East Lake Golf Club, Atlanta, Georgia
Par 70, 7,346 yards
Stroke index in 2017 - 69.38
Dating back to 1904, East Lake has been remodelled by some renowned architects over the years. In 1913 Donald Ross completely reworked the course and then George Cobb tinkered with the place before the 1963 Ryder Cup. The club was neglected after that though, when the majority of its members switched to nearby Atlanta Athletic Club, but it was restored once again in 1994 by Rees Jones and it's thrived ever since.
In 2007, Zach Johnson shot the course record of 60 and Tiger Woods amassed an incredible 23 under-par total in the same year but it's been much tougher since, thanks to a change to the greens. With a move in the calendar to September, the committee chose to change the greens to Bermuda and the effect had been dramatic. The scoring has been much tougher, although five of the last six winners have managed to get to double-figures under-par.
The two nines were switched before the 2016 renewal meaning the tournament finished on a par five instead of a par three and that definitely helped to make a more dramatic finale.
The par five 18th has an official yardage of 590 yards but on three of the four days last year it was set up between 567 and 572 yards to encourage players to go for the green in two.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 18:30 UK time on Thursday
Last Five Winners
2017 - Xander Schauffele -12
2016 - Rory McIlroy -12 (playoff)
2015 - Jordan Spieth -9
2014 - Billy Horschel -11
2013 - Henrik Stenson -13
What Will it Take to Win the Tour Championship?
It used to be the case that accuracy was more important than length of the tee here. The 2016 winner, Jordan Spieth, was the fifth winner in six years to rank outside the top-ten for Driving Distance and the odd man out, Bill Haas, only ranked ninth, but the last two winners have ranked third and sixth for DD and a number of placed players have ranked highly for DD too. Schauffele also drove the ball straight and in addition to ranking sixth for DD, he ranked ninth for Driving Accuracy and he led the field for Strokes Gained Off the Tee at 1.153 strokes per round.
Last year's winner also ranked tied first for Par 5 Scoring - playing them in seven-under-par - and he putted brilliantly too, missing just twice inside ten feet all week long, but the main stat for East Lake has always been Greens In Regulation. Schauffele ranked tied sixth for GIR and that was fairly typical. Bill Haas (who ranked 11th in 2011) is the only winner in 18 renewals at East Lake to rank outside the top-ten for GIR and six of the last 13 to succeed here have ranked number one for GIR.
Is There an Angle In?
Form at other Donald Ross courses often transfers well and it certainly did a fortnight ago when the BMW Championship leaderboard was dominated by players with a good record on Ross designs.
Check out that result at Aronimink, as well as the result of The Barclays at Plainfield in 2015, the 2013 USPGA Championship result from Oak Hill Country Club, the 2010 and 2011 renewals of the AT & T National (also staged at Aronimink) and consider also results at Pinehurst Country Club, which hosted the US Open in 1999, 2005 and again in 2014 but concentrate your efforts hardest on the Wyndham Championship as that has by some distance, been the best guide...
Now that this venue and Sedgefield Country Club, home of the Wyndham, both have Bermuda greens, form at the two events should crossover very nicely and that's been the case over the last couple of years.
The 2015 winner, Jordan Spieth, was been beaten in a playoff at the Wyndham, Webb Simpson, who finished fourth in 2013, is a former winner of the event and Justin Rose, who has recent form figures reading 2-6-4-2-10 in this event has lots of Donald Ross form, including a fifth-place finish at the Wyndham, a win in the AT & T National at Aronimink and of course, that agonising playoff defeat there two weeks ago.
In 2012, three of the first five home here had all previously won the Wyndham and Luke Donald, who finished third, finished runner-up in the Wyndham two years ago. Last year's Wyndham winner, Henrik Stenson, won here in 2013, this year's first and fourth, Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk, win this event in 2012 and 2010. And if all that wasn't enough, to cement the correlation even further check out the result of the 2015 renewal of the Wyndham Championship - 2008 Tour Championship winner, Camilo Villegas, beat the 2011 winner, Bill Haas.
Away from the obvious Donald Ross designs link, the Greenbrier Classic around TPC Old White might be well worth checking out too. Schauffele's first victory came there and he's one of a number of players (from a fairly small pool of players) to figure prominently in both tournaments. Bill Haas was second in the Greenbrier Classic the year he won the Tour Championship and the runner-up at the Tour Championship in 2015, Danny Lee, had earlier won the Greenbrier Classic. Kevin Kisner, who played in last year's final two-ball, having begun the day in a tie for second, was beaten in the playoff at the Greenbrier Classic by Lee three years ago and Snedeker was third in the Greenbrier this year.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Last year's shock [110.0] winner, Schauffele, went against the grain in several respects. As already highlighted, he was the first tournament winner not to win the FedEx Cup since Phil Mickelson in 2009, he was making his East Lake debut, he was the first rookie to win a playoff event and he came in to the event on the back of some ordinary form. Since his breakthrough win at the Greenbrier Classic, he's produced form figures reading 20-13-MC-17-53-20 and that was really unusual given strong current form really has been the key here recently.
As already stated, six of the last seven winners of the Tour Championship have also won the FedEx Cup and four of the last six winners had all begun the week inside the top-five in the standings. Rory was the odd one out prior to Xander but he only ranked sixth!
Following Bryson DeChambeau's victories in the first two events this year, in six of the last seven years, and on a staggering nine occasions in total, someone has won two FedEx Cup Playoff events. That's a big plus for Keegan Bradley given Tiger Woods (2007), Camilo Villegas (2008) and Billy Horschel (2014) have all won the last two events but I don't know what to think re Bryson as nobody has won three in a year...yet.
Tiger Woods is still the only man to win the FedEx Cup twice.
Xander sat tied for 17th and three off the lead after round one last year, he was two adrift and tied for eighth at halfway and he sat tied for second and three off the lead, held by Paul Casey, with a round to go.
A year earlier, two of the three playoff protagonists, Rory McIlroy and Ryan Moore (another Wyndham winner), were both five adrift at halfway and still two back with a round to go, while the other man to feature in extra time, Kevin Chappell, was on the premises throughout, having led after the opening round, and that pretty much sums up East Lake. Some win from the front, some come from behind and there's no real bias either way.
Stenson, in 2013, and Horschel, a year later, both won here wire-to-wire and Spieth was always there or thereabouts in 2015. He sat five off the lead in fifth after round one, was three adrift in second at halfway and in front with a round to go but as Xander, Rory and Ryan have all shown recently, a fast start isn't the be all and end all and some winners have come from some way off the pace...
Phil Mickelson was seven back and in 26th place after an opening round of 73 before going on to win in 2009 and like McIlroy and Moore, the 2012 winner, Snedeker, and the 2008 champ, Villegas, were five adrift at the halfway stage. Bill Haas was three off the lead with a round to go in 2011, Lefty was still four back, and Villegas made up a five stroke deficit in the final round before beating Sergio Garcia in a playoff so we certainly can't describe East Lake as a frontrunners track.
As already mentioned, they flipped the two nines two years ago and whether that's a contributory factor or not I don't know but we've seen plenty of drama since and the in-play layers have enjoyed much fun with five players going odds-on before getting beat.
After Dustin Johnson had been matched at long odds-on on the Saturday two years ago, Chappell hit a low of [1.2] in regulation on Sunday and Moore was matched at [1.6] in extra time and it was a similar story last year, too. Casey was matched at [1.81] before he failed to birdie the 18th in round three and Justin Thomas was matched at just [1.45] after he'd birdied the 17th hole in round four.
I'm more than happy to swerve Rory McIlroy, who's becoming expensive to follow. He's won just once (this year's Arnold Palmer Invitational) since he won this two years ago and although there have been some encouraging signs of late, his putting is still a huge concern.
Brand new world number one, Justin Rose, is my idea of the man to beat. He plays Donald Ross-designed tracks better than anyone and he'll be desperate to put his finish at Aronimink behind him. He's bang in form playing at a venue that suits and at number two in the FedEx Cup Standings, he has just the right profile given four of the last five FedEx Cup winners began the final week in that position.
Dustin Johnson is another that fits the bill. Like Justin, he's never won the FedEx Cup (Tiger the only man to win it twice), he's ranked number three in the standings, and he plays East Lake really well but he's been quite erratic since losing the US Open after leading at halfway and he doesn't strike me as someone to put much faith in at present.
Justin Thomas is bidding to be the first back-to-back FedEx Cup champ so that's against him and he looked jaded to me at Aronimink. There were lots of mistakes and every time he got himself back in to contention he did something daft so that's a bit of a worry. That said, he's had a week off to refresh, he has a tremendous strike rate and he won the WGC-Bridgestone a week after missing the cut at the Open Championship so he's not one to dismiss readily.
The stats suggest he's a good thing and we know he loves the venue and yet Justin Rose is not much shorter than he was two weeks ago with 40 less players in the field. I can only imagine people want to take him on because of his finish at Aronimink but that doesn't put me off at all. All golfers mess up occasionally and Rose is no exception. He's an Olympic champion, a major champion and he's now the world number one so I'm more than happy to forgive it and side with him here at what looks a very fair price.
Unsurprisingly, Bryson DeChambeau complained of mental and physical fatigue at Aronimink so the week off will have done him good so I'm going to play both him and Keegan Bradley, and solely because of the incredible record players that have previously won a FedEx Cup event in the same season have here.
And last but not least, I'm also backing Billy Horschel who won here four years ago. He withdrew from the Dell Technologies with illness but he finished third at the other two FedEx Cup events so he looked big enough to me for a course winner in red-hot form.
I'll be back tomorrow with my Portugal Masters preview.
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