Tour Championship: Value sits with the chasers

Golfer Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson with the Northern Trust
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We're off East Lake this week for the final event of the curtailed 2019/20 PGA Tour season and the FedEx Cup decider. Read our man's detailed preview ahead of Friday's start here...

"Having the start didn't help Justin Thomas and the last four players to enter the Tour Championship at the head of the FedEx Cup standings have all failed to win the FedEx Cup – with or without the handicap start."

Tournament History

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's 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 consisted of four events initially. The top-125 on the Fed-Ex Cup standings lined-up in the first event of the series, The Northern Trust, and they were whittled down to 100 for the second event, the Dell Technologies Championship, before the top-70 in the standings then moved on to the BMW Championship, where another 40 were lost before the top-30 in the standings played for the FedEx Cup in this event. A rest week was inserted in-between the BMW and the Tour Championship to give the qualifiers a chance to recharge but it was all change again last year.

The Dell Technologies Championship was done away with and so too has the rest week. The top-125 in the standings played in the Northern Trust two weeks ago and the top-70 battled it out for a place in the top-30, and a place in the field here, at Olympia Fields last week. What previously took five weeks and four events, now takes three weeks and three events. That was a good move, changing this final event into a handicap wasn't though...

After the first two FedEx Cup Series' turned into damp squibs, with Tiger Woods in 2007 and VJ Singh in 2008 entering the Tour Championship with unassailable leads, the format was tweaked for the first time to make it more competitive. The scores were reset before the Tour Championship and if any of the top-five in the standings won the Tour Championship, they'd also win the FedEx Cup. It was a little more complicated for those ranked 6-30 but they could still win the FedEx Cup if others above them performed poorly.

The changes made had the desired effect and from 2009, seven of the first eight Tour Championship winners also won the FedEx Cup but in 2017 and 2018, Xander Schauffele and Tiger Woods, like the 2009 winner, Phil Mickelson, didn't and that's something that the sponsors weren't happy about so we now have the strange set up detailed below.

Tour Championship Format

Who wins the FedEx Cup is of almost no interest to me, it never has been. It's merely a question of which already obscenely rich golfer trousers even more money. Who cares? I certainly don't but FedEx clearly do, after all, it's their money up for grabs and I can see why it hasn't quite sat right with them that on occasions, the winner of the Tour Championship hasn't also won the FedEx Cup. Understandably, with FedEx putting up all the money, they want all the attention. And now they've got it.

In one of the most irritating rule changes I've ever seen, the Tour Championship has become a handicapped event, and as a result, as far as I'm concerned, it's no longer a tournament. Although it wasn't the case last year, we have a strong possibility of seeing the player shooting the lowest score over four rounds not being declared the winner.

Tiger Woods' victory at East Lake two years ago was one of the biggest stories in sport, let alone golf, but he'd entered the week ranked at just 20th in the FedEx Cup standings. He won the event by three strokes over Billy Horschel and he beat the FedEx Cup winner, Justin Rose, by five strokes, but had this new handicap system been in place, he'd have been beaten by Rose by three strokes.

Sooner or later someone is going to shoot the lowest score over four days and 72 holes and for the first time in the history of the PGA Tour, they won't be declared the winner. It's nonsense but it's real nonsense so here's how the handicaps work.

Dustin Johnson, the number one in the FedEx Cup Standings, will begin the event on -10, the second in the standings, Jon Rahm, begins on -8, the third, Justin Thomas, -7, the fourth, Webb Simpson, -6 and the fifth, Collin Morikawa, -5. After that, those ranked sixth to 10th will begin the Tour Championship on -4, 11th to 15th will start on -3, 16th to 20th -2, 21st to 25th will begin on -1 and the remaining five will start on level-par. For your convenience, here's the full field with their handicap starts.

D Johnson -10
J Rahm -8
J Thomas -7
W Simpson -6
C Morikawa -5
D Berger, H English, B Dechambeau, S Im, H Matsuyama -4
B Todd, R McIlroy, P Reed, X Schauffele, S Munoz -3
L Griffin, S Scheffler, J Niemann, T Hatton, T Finau -2
K Kisner, R Palmer, K Na, A Ancer, M Leishman -1
C Smith, V Hovland, M Hughes, C Champ, B Horschel Level Par.

Choice of Markets

The winner market here will reflect the handicaps and the official result but you can also bet on who will shoot the lowest 72 hole score, excluding the handicaps, here. And there is also a market for the lowest first round score excluding the handicaps here.

First 13 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
2018 -Justin Rose
2019 - Rory McIlroy

Venue

East Lake Golf Club, Atlanta, Georgia

Course Details

Par 70, 7,346 yards
Stroke index in 2019 - 70.03

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.

EAST LAKE 2020 1.jpg

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 seven of the last eight 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 it's often set up shorter to encourage players to go for the green in two and it was the second easiest hole on the course last year - averaging 4.63.

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 17:30 UK time on Friday

Last Five Winners with Handicap Start and Pre-event Exchange Prices

2019 - Rory McIlroy -18 (-5) [9.8]
2018 - Tiger Woods -11 [13.5]
2017 - Xander Schauffele -12 [120.0]
2016 - Rory McIlroy -12 [8.4]
2015 - Jordan Spieth -9 [10.0]

What Will it Take to Win the Tour Championship?

The 2016 and 2017 winners, Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele, both ranked higher for Driving Distance than they did for Driving Accuracy (third and sixth) but six of the last ten winners have ranked outside the top-ten for Driving Distance and other than McIlroy (twice) and Schauffele, Bill Haas, who only ranked ninth, is the only other winner in the last ten years to rank inside the top-ten (and there's only 30 in the field remember).

Rory drove the ball brilliantly last year, ranking third for DA and eighth for DD but the first two home in 2018, Tiger Woods and Billy Horschel, ranked third and first for DA and only 13th and 28th for DD so accuracy, most years, is of more importance than power.

Rory ranked second for Putting Average and Tiger topped the PA stats a year earlier but I wouldn't get too hung up on the putting stats. Horschel, second behind Tiger, only ranked 18th, Dustin Johnson in third only ranked 13th and Hideki Matsuyama and Rose finished tied for fourth with PA rankings of 23rd and 25th. The main stat for East Lake has always been Greens In Regulation, and seven of the top eight last year ranked inside the top-eight for GIR.

Woods only ranked 14th in 2018 but the next four on the leaderboard all hit plenty of greens. Horschel ranked first, Dustin Johnson ranked fourth, Matsuyama third and Rose second. GIR is the stat to concentrate on

Is There an Angle In?

From a course correlation angle, form at Donald Ross designed tracks tends to cross over well so check out the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club, Aronimink Country Club, which hosted the AT & T National in both 2010 and 2011 and the BMW Championship in 2018, and Sedgefield Country Club, home of the Wyndham Championship.

Now that this venue and Sedgefield Country Club, both have Bermuda greens, form at the two events should crossover very nicely and that's been the case over the last few years.

The 2015 winner, Jordan Spieth, was been beaten in a playoff at the Wyndham, Webb Simpson, who finished fourth in 2013 and 2018, is a former winner of the event (second again last year and third this) and Justin Rose, who has recent form figures reading 2-6-4-2-10-4 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, as well as a playoff defeat there in the BMW two years 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 four years ago. The 2017 Wyndham winner, Henrik Stenson, won here in 2013, the Wyndham's first and fourth in 2018, Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk, won this event in 2012 and 2010 and Horschel, who has a first and a second here, was second in the Wyndham three weeks ago. If all that wasn't enough, to cement the correlation even further - check out the result of the 2015 renewal of the Wyndham Championship... The 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 the final two-ball here in 2017, having begun the day in a tie for second, was beaten in the playoff at the Greenbrier Classic by Lee five years ago and Snedeker was third in the Greenbrier in 2018.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

Following Bryson DeChambeau's victories in the first two events of the Playoff Series two years ago, in six of the last eight years, and on a staggering nine occasions in total, someone has won two FedEx Cup Playoff events and Tiger Woods (2007), Camilo Villegas (2008) and Billy Horschel (2014) have all won the last two events. That's a big plus for the first two in the betting Dustin Johnson, who won the Nortern Trust two weeks ago and last week's BMW winner, Jon Rahm.

Jon rahm win BMW.jpg

How Did the Handicap Pan Out Last Year?

Here are the standings prior to the off last year.

J Thomas -10
P Cantlay -8
B Koepka -7
P Reed -6
R McIlroy -5
J Rahm, M Kuchar, X Schauffele, W Simpson, A Ancer -4
G Woodland, T Finau, A Scott, D Johnson, H Matsuyama -3
P Casey, J Rose, K Kisner, B Snedeker, R Fowler -2
M Leishman, S Im, C Conners, C Reavie, T Fleetwood -1
B Dechambeau, L Oosthuizen, C Howell III, L Glover, J Kokrak Level Par.

And here's the result.

1 - R McIlroy - 18
2 - X Schauffele - 14
T3 - B Koepka & J Thomas -13
5 - P Casey -9
6 - A Scott - 8
7 - T Finau -7
8 - C Reavie -6
T9 - K Kisner, H Matsuyama & P Reed -5

As you can see above, having the start didn't help Justin Thomas and the last four players to enter the Tour Championship at the head of the standings have all failed to win the FedEx Cup - with or without the handicap start.

Bryson DeChambeau finished 19th at East Lake, beaten by ten strokes, in 2018, Spieth let in Justin Thomas, who'd began the week ranked second, when he could only finish tied for seventh, beaten by five strokes, in 2017 and this year's leader, Dustin Johnson, who's yet to win the FedEx Cup, finished tied sixth, beaten by seven, in 2016 when McIlroy won the first of his two FedEx Cups, having begun the Tour Championship ranked sixth in the standings.

The number one player in the standings at the start of the week has always had a target on their back but that's even more obvious now they have a handicap lead.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

2019 - Rory McIlroy T2 - trailing by one [3.75]
2018 - Tiger Woods - led by three strokes [1.66]
2017 - Xander Schauffele - trailing by two [6.6]
2016 - Rory McIlroy - trailing by two [4.4]
2015 - Jordan Spieth - led by a stroke [1.93]

In-Play Tactics

Having began the event fifth in the rankings and five off the lead, the eventual winner, Rory McIlroy, hit a 66 on day one to Justin Thomas' 70 to close the gap to just one, with Thomas tied at the top with Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele on -10. And those four dominated the event from that moment on.

Koepka led by a stroke over Rory and Thomas and by two over Schauffele at halfway and he was still in front by just one with round to go. McIlroy and Schauffele were tied in second and there was a gap of three strokes back to the wilting Thomas.

It's going to be interesting to see what happens this year and whether we again get a field strung out like washing on a line. If we do, it might be time to disregard results prior to the handicap being imposed but for now, we should perhaps pay some regard to the pre-handicap results.

Tiger won wire-to-wire in 2018 but Xander sat tied for 17th and three off the lead after round one three years ago. 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, like Woods, 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 (yet another Wyndham winner) in a playoff so we certainly can't describe East Lake as a frontrunners track.

As already mentioned, they flipped the two nines four years ago and whether that's a contributory factor or not I don't know but we've seen plenty of late 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 four years ago, Kevin Chappell hit a low of [1.2] in regulation on Sunday and Ryan Moore was matched at [1.6] in extra time and it was a similar story three years ago too. Paul 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.

To counter that, with such a small field, we do often get some pretty dull renewals. Woods was a [1.01] shot for much of the back-nine two years ago and after going to clear after the seventh on Sunday last year, Rory never looked like losing eiher.

Market Leaders

With a two- stroke lead, Dustin Johnson is a short priced favourite at [3.15] and he looks opposable to me. He's been in the heat of battle in each of his last three outings so he's bound to be mentally jaded to some degree, even if he doesn't show it. He's never won the FedEx Cup, despite leading it before and he has a fairly ordinary record in this event too. In ten visits to East lake, third two years ago is his best finish.

Jon Rahm will feel like he's walking on air after coming from behind to win the BMW Championship last week after his miraculous 66 foot birdie putt at the first extra hole and I can see him bridging the gap to DJ quite quickly but with course form figures reading 7-11-13, he has regressive bank of East Lake form and that has to be slightly concerning. He opened up with two rounds of 67 on debut in 2017 but hasn't bettered that score since.

Justin Thomas' game has deserted him a bit of late and he won the WGC-FedEx St Jude despite putting poorly a month ago. In his three starts since, he's finished 37th, 49th and 25th, which is a concern but he does have a decent bank of East Lake form reading 6-2-7-9.

Webb Simpson has form here reading 22-5-4-23-13-4-20 and he'll probably benefit from missing last week's gruelling BMW Championship but he looks short enough to me given he's not straightforward in-contention.

Selections

Lots of people are concentrating on the Lowest 72 Hole Score market but it's interesting to note that the first and second in the handicap last year also shot the lowest 72 hole scores and I don't like the ambiguity of the lowest 72 hole total. I like to bet on someone trying to win something and I think there's plenty of value in four of the players that sit on -4 and between sixth and tenth in the standings.

Bryson DeChambeau at Colonial.jpg

I'm going to swerve Daniel Berger at around [36.0] but I'm more than happy to chance Bryson DeChambeau, Hideki Matsuyama, Harris English and Sungjae Im at really juicy prices. A fast start by one or two of them and a pedestrian start by the front two and I'll be in business. I'm not mad keen on the tournament now that they've made it into a handicap but I fancy those four are all a bit too big and I'm also taking a very small chance on Chile's Joaquin Niemann who trails DJ by eight.

He was magnificent at the BMW over the weekend last week and he won the aforementioned Greenbrier last September by fully six strokes.

Selections:
Bryson DeChambeau @ [34.0]
Hideki Matsuyama @ [46.0]
Harris English @ [110.0]
Sungjae Im @ [140.0]
Joaquin Niemann @ [290.0]

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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