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Tour Championship: Justin Thomas is worthy favourite at East Lake

Golfer Justin Thomas in action
Justin Thomas at last year's Tour Championship
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This week's Tour Championship marks the end of the FedEx Cup, and sees the first use of a handicap system. Will Justin Thomas justify his firm favouritism or is there value elsewhere in the market? Steve Rawlings takes a look...

"At first glance, odds of around 3/1 about Thomas may look a bit short but none of the four men within five strokes of his handicap lead inspire much confidence and I’m happy to play him at that price."

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's all change this year.

The Dell Technologies Championship has been 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 Medinah last week. What previously took five weeks and four events, will now take three weeks and three events. Alas, that isn't the only change this year...

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 the last two winners, 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 yet more changes have been made this time around (see below).

New 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 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, this event, the Tour Championship, has become a handicapped event, and as a result, as far as I'm concerned, it's no longer a tournament. By making it a handicap, we're almost certain to see the player shooting the lowest score over four rounds not being declared the winner.

Tiger Woods' victory at East Lake 12 months 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 12 months ago, he'd have been beaten by Rose by three strokes.

I just can't see how this is an improvement. Someone, in all likelihood, and possibly someone yet to win a PGA Tour event, 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 are going to work.

The number one in the FedEx Cup Standings will begin the event on -10, the second in the standings -8, the third -7, the fourth -6 and the fifth -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.

A simplified market

The Sportsbook are offering a straightforward 'lowest 72-hole score' market if you don't want to worry about the handicaps. Thomas and McIlroy share favouritism here at 7/1, with Koepka a 17/2 chance.

First 12 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

Venue

East Lake Golf Club, Atlanta, Georgia

Course Details

Par 70, 7,346 yards
Stroke index in 2018 - 69.62

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 six of the last seven 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 4.5.

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 18:00 UK time on Thursday

Last Five Winners

2018 - Tiger Woods -11
2017 - Xander Schauffele -12
2016 - Rory McIlroy -12 (playoff)
2015 - Jordan Spieth -9
2014 - Billy Horschel -11

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 nine winners have ranked outside the top-ten for Driving Distance and other than McIlroy and Schauffele, Bill Haas, who only ranked ninth, is the only other winner in the last nine years to rank inside the top-ten (and there's only 30 in the field remember).

The first two home 12 months ago, Woods and Horschel, ranked third and first for Driving Accuracy and 13th and 28th for DD so accuracy, most years, is of more importance than power.

Tiger topped the Putting Average stats last year but I wouldn't get too hung up on the putting stats. Horschel 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, even though Wods only ranked 14th last year!

Schauffele ranked tied sixth for GIR in 2018 and that was fairly typical. Bill Haas (who ranked 11th in 2011) is the only winner, other than Woods last year, in 19 renewals at East Lake to rank outside the top-ten for GIR and six of the last 14 to succeed here have ranked number one for GIR. Woods may have only ranked 14th last year but the next four on the leaderboard all hit plenty of greens. Horschel ranked first, Dustin Johnson ranked fourth, Matsuyama third and Rose second.

Is There an Angle In?

From a course correlation angle, form at Donald Ross designed tracks tends to cross over well so a look at form at Oak Hill Country Club, which was the venue for the 2013 USPGA Championship and for more recent form, check out the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club, won easily by Nate Lashley in May, Aronimink Country Club, which hosted the AT & T National in both 2010 and 2011 and the BMW Championship last year, 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 tied fourth again last year, is a former winner of the event (second again this year) 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 last year.

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 three years ago. The 2017 Wyndham winner, Henrik Stenson, won here in 2013, last year's first and fourth, Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk, won this event in 2012 and 2010 and Horschel, who has a first and a second here, was sixth 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 four years ago and Snedeker was third in the Greenbrier last year.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

TIGER WOODS November 2018.jpg

Following Bryson DeChambeau's victories in the first two events of the Playoff Series last year, 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 last week's BMW winner, Thomas, and for the Northern Trust champ, Patrick Reed.

Tiger's victory here last year may not have been enough to win the big money but Woods is still the only man to win the FedEx Cup twice.

In-Play Tactics

Tiger won wire-to-wire last year but Xander sat tied for 17th and three off the lead after round one two 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, despite last year's result.

As already mentioned, they flipped the two nines three years ago and whether that's a contributory factor or not I don't know but we've 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 three 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 two 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 and Woods was a [1.01] shot for much of the back-nine last year.

Will the handicap make Thomas a target?

Since Tiger Woods won the second of his two FedEx Cups ten years ago, Spieth, in 2015, is the only player to win the FedEx Cup Playoff Series having began it ranked number one and the last three players to enter the Tour Championship at the head of the standings have all failed to win the FedEx Cup.

Bryson DeChambeau finished 19th at East Lake, beaten by ten strokes, last year, Spieth let in Justin Thomas, who'd began the week ranked second, when he could only finish tied for seventh, beaten by five strokes and Dustin Johnson, who's yet to win the FedEx Cup, finished tied sixth, beaten by seven, in 2016 when McIlroy won the FedEx Cup, 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 and I can see some nervy starts here going forward with this new format (presuming they don't scrap it after this year!).

With a two stroke lead, Thomas is a clear and fairly short favourite but could they be too short given the pressure they'll be under?

Market Leaders

I know I keep moaning about the handicap system format but we've reached the climax of the season-long FedEx Cup race and the defending Tour Championship winner and US Masters winner, Tiger Woods, along with the Champion Golfer of the Year, Shane Lowry, are both missing from the elite 30 man line-up.

That doesn't seem right to me and neither does the fact that Justin Thomas' first victory in more than a year sees him top the standings with just this event to go.

Too many points are dished out in the first two FedEx Cup events and as a result Thomas [3.9], with his two-stroke lead, is a warm favourite to win at a track he clearly enjoys. Thomas won the FedEx Cup two years ago when second here to Xander Schauffele and either side of that effort he's finished sixth and seventh at East Lake.

As already stated, two-time FedEx Cup winners, and back-to-back FedEx Cup winners, are fairly common and with his two shot advantage, Thomas could easily be the next to achieve the feat.

Patrick Cantlay [6.0] continues to impress but his record at East Lake is poor. He's only played here twice and he's finished 20th and 21st. In his defence, this is the first time he's been in the FedEx Cup shake up but that's still a worry.

Brooks Koepka [7.2] may even relish having to concede three strokes to Thomas but I'm worried how determined he'll be this week. Famously un-competitive in non-majors, he hasn't figured in either of the first two playoff events and I'm concerned he might not get going again here. His three previous visits to East Lake have seen him produce form figures reading 18-6-26.

RORY McILROY 1280.jpg

Rory McIlroy [11.0] won the FedEx Cup from off the pace three years ago, when those above him in the standings flopped, but he's been too in-and-out for me of late. His 19th last week was a disappointing effort and after his post-Portrush disaster rally, I wonder if the tank is now empty?

The Northern Trust winner Patrick Reed [24.0] is a winner at Sedgefield but he has some dire figures here and with course form figures reading 19-27-24-13-28 he has to be ignored.

Selections

At first glance, odds of around 3/1 about Thomas may look a bit short but none of the four men within five strokes of his handicap lead inspire much confidence and I'm happy to play him at that price.

Trailing by six, the 2017 Tour Championship winner, Xander Schauffele [34.0], has his work cut out but he loves a Ross design and he finished a very respectable seventh when defending his course debut win 12 months ago. I thought he was worth taking a very small chance on at anything around the mid-30s.

Steven Rawlings,

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