Tour Championship: Spieth and Thomas chanced at East Lake

Golfer Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth - one of The Punter's picks at East Lake

We're off to East Lake this week for the FedEx Cup decider and the final event of the 2020/21 PGA Tour season. Read our man's detailed preview ahead of Thursday's start here...

"The front two in the standings look worth taking on and that opens the event up slightly so I’m playing a couple of players that start the tournament trailing by six – the 2015 Tour Champion, Jordan Spieth, and the two-time runner-up, Justin Thomas."

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 and after the introduction of a rest week, it ran over five weeks but it was all change two years ago when the Dell Technologies Championship was done away with and so too was the week off.

As was the case last year, 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, in the BMW Championship last week. What previously took five weeks and four events, now takes three weeks and three events. That was a good move but 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

In one of the most irritating rule changes I've ever seen, the Tour Championship has become a handicapped event, and it's a bit of a nonsense as far as I'm concerned.

Rory McIlroy won the FedEx Cup in 2019 when they first introduced the handicap system, but Xander Schauffele shot the lowest 72-hole total for the week last year but didn't win the tournament. He'd begun the event on -3 compared to Dustin Johnson's -10 so although he was eventually beaten by three strokes, he actually played the event in four strokes less than winner. It's nonsense but it's real nonsense so here's how the handicaps work.

Cantlay wins BMW.jpg

Patrick Canlay, the number one in the FedEx Cup Standings, will begin the event on -10, the second in the standings, Tony Finau, begins on -8, the third, Bryson DeChambeau, -7, the fourth, Jon Rahm, -6 and the fifth, Cameron Smith, -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.

P Cantlay -10
T Finau -8
B DeChambeau -7
J Rahm -6
C Smith -5
J Thomas, H English, A Ancer, J Spieth, S Burns -4
C Morikawa, S Im, V Hovland, L Oosthuizen, D Johnson -3
R McIlroy, X Schauffele, J Kokrak, K Na, B Koepka -2
C Conners, H Matsuyama, S Cink, J Niemann, S Scheffler -1
D Berger, E Van Rooyen, S Garcia, B Horschel, Patrick Reed 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. There's a market for the first round leader and there is also a market for the lowest first round score excluding the handicaps here.

First 14 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
2020 - Dustin Johnson

Venue

East Lake Golf Club, Atlanta, Georgia

Course Details

Par 70, 7,346 yards
Stroke index in 2020- 68.92

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 eight of the last nine winners have managed to get to double-figures under-par.

EAST LAKE 2021 2.jpg

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 4.55.

TV Coverage

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

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

2020 - Dustin Johnson -21 (-10) 3.211/5
2019 - Rory McIlroy -18 (-5) 9.89/1
2018 - Tiger Woods -11 13.5
2017 - Xander Schauffele -12 120.0119/1
2016 - Rory McIlroy -12 8.415/2
2015 - Jordan Spieth -9 10.09/1

What Will it Take to Win the Tour Championship?

Dustin Johnson ranked second for Driving Distance and only 28th for Driving Accuracy last year and 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 11 winners have ranked outside the top-ten for Driving Distance and other than DJ, McIlroy (twice) and Schauffele, Bill Haas, who only ranked ninth, is the only other winner in the last 12 years to rank inside the top-ten (and there's only 30 in the field remember).

Accuracy off the tee is usually more important than power but neither stat is of vital importance.

Rory ranked second for Putting Average two years ago and Tiger topped the PA stats a year earlier but I wouldn't get too hung up on the putting stats. DJ only ranked ninth last year and the main stat for East Lake has always been Greens In Regulation.

The top-six all ranked tied fifth or better for GIR last year and seven of the top eight in 2019 ranked inside the top-eight for GIR.

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.

As recently as three weeks ago we saw East Lake specialists, Justin Rose and Adam Scott contend at Sedgefield. An out-of-form Rose finished tenth after playing the last five holes in two-over-par and the 2006 Tour Championship winner, Adam Scott, traded at just 1.261/4 before he missed a short put for the title in the playoff.

The 2015 winner of this event, 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 and inIn 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 five 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 last year.

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.

Most of the players in the field this week with Sedgefield form are too far down the leaderboard to have a plausible chance of winning but the likes of Kevin Na, Sergio Garcia, Billy Horschel and Hideki Matsuyama maybe of interest in the Lowest 72 Hole Score market.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

Following DJ's victories in the first and third events of the Playoff Series last year, in seven of the last nine years, and on a staggering ten 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 Patrick Cantlay and Tony Finau.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

2020 - Dustin Johnson - led by five strokes 1.292/7
2019 - Rory McIlroy T2 - trailing by one 3.7511/4
2018 - Tiger Woods - led by three strokes 1.664/6
2017 - Xander Schauffele - trailing by two 6.611/2
2016 - Rory McIlroy - trailing by two 4.47/2
2015 - Jordan Spieth - led by a stroke 1.9310/11

In-Play Tactics

Jon Rahm, who had begun the tournament second in the FedEx Cup Standings and trailing Dustin Johnson by two strokes, drew alongside him after the opening round but DJ kicked on after that for a facile and dull victory.

A year earlier, having begun the event fifth in the rankings and five off the lead, the eventual winner, Rory McIlroy, hit a 66 on day one to get to within one of the Fed Ex Cup leader Justin Thomas, who shot 70. Thomas was 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.

Looking at 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 four 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 Jordan 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.

Although it is possible to win here from off the pace, the last three editions have been pretty dull affairs. Woods was a 1.011/100 shot for much of the back-nine three years ago, Rory never looked like losing two years ago and DJ won cosily in the end after a little wobble on the front-nine when he bogeyed seven and eight.

Market Leaders

Patrick Cantlay heads the market and given how well he putted last week and that he holds a two stroke lead over the field, that's perfectly fair but I'm more than happy to leave him out.

He sat second in the FedEx Cup standings in two years ago, trailing Justin Thomas by two strokes before the off here but he finished down the field in a tie for 21st! Disregarding his start, he finished 28th and in his two previous visits he'd finished 20th and 21st.

Bryson DeChambeau was an extremely unlucky loser at the BMW Championship on Sunday and he has to be respected given his position in the standings but he too has a poor record at East Lake.

Bryson deChambeau at the FedEx St Jude.jpg

His form figures with the handicaps taken into account read 19-12-22 and without they read 19-7-19.

Jon Rahm was very frustrated at times at the BMW Championship last week and I'm not surprised. He's not getting the rewards his excellent play deserves since he won the US Open and he could very easily catch the leaders on Thursday and be the man they all have to beat.

Rahm has reasonable course form numbers that read 7-11-13-4 but if we take out his handicap starts over the last two years, they only read 7-11-12-6 and I'm happy to leave him alone from the start.

Tony Finau is the only other player trading at a single figure price and his course form figures are no better than ordinary. With the handicaps taken into account read 7-15-7-14 and without they read 7-15-7-17.

Selections

Lots of people are concentrating on the Lowest 72 Hole Score market but I don't like the ambiguity of the it. I like to bet on someone trying to win something.

In the fullness of time, if they insist on persisting with this nonsense system, the FedEx Cup leaders will have a decent enough strike-rate in the event but with his poor course form, Cantlay looks opposable and given we had to wait five years for his second PGA Tour win, it's perhaps hard to envisage Finau winning his third title two weeks after his second.

The front two in the standings look worth taking on and that opens the event up slightly so for tiny stakes, I'm playing a couple of players that start the tournament trailing by six - the 2015 Tour Champion, Jordan Spieth, and the two-time runner-up, Justin Thomas.

Selections:
Justin Thomas @ 24.023/1
Jordan Spieth @ 42.041/1

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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