The PGA Tour reaches the end of its 2016/17 season, with a final 30-man shootout to decide the FedEx Cup Champion and the winner of the $10million season-long prize.
The top five in the FedEx Cup standings – Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Marc Leishman and Jon Rahm – all have their destiny in their own hands and are guaranteed the windfall with a victory, but realistically everyone in the field has a chance of securing the cheese, as evidenced by Bill Haas coming from 25th in the standings to win the lot after securing a memorable victory back in 2011.
The season finale takes place, as it has every year since the FedEx Cup’s inception in 2007, at the historic East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia, previously the setting for Ryder Cups and US Amateur Championships in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The 7,385 yard, par 70 Donald Ross design underwent a makeover in 2008 to bring the course up to speed with the modern-day advances in technology and power, and now represents a fair test for the players who have proven themselves most consistent over the previous 10 months.
Though the scorecard yardage indicates that bombers might have an advantage, driving accuracy has actually proved a more reliable barometer for success at East Lake, as the lush Bermudagrass rough acts as a natural defence against wayward tee shots and shaved run off areas penalise those who err on approach. Allied to this, the East Lake greens are true and fast, running around 13 on the Stimpmeter and, of the champions this decade, only Billy Horschel has ranked outside the top 10 in Strokes Gaines: Putting, so being hot with the flat stick is a pre-requisite this week.
Whilst the above outlines the likely method of securing a victory this week, past performance has been a very reliable guide to success at East Lake and possibly the most obvious pointer in the direction of who we should be backing to win this week. Rory McIlroy had a runner-up finish on his CV here prior to his win last year, as had Jordan Spieth before his 2015 victory. Billy Horschel had finished tied for 7th in his only try at the course prior to his 2014 win, while Jim Furyk had consecutive top 7 finishes prior to his 2010 triumph. Both Henrik Stenson (2013 Champ) and Furyk also subsequently went on to post runner-ups at East Lake after their wins so clearly this is a horses-for-courses kind of track.
With that said, the problem we run into when assessing this data is the changing of the guard in the golf world, with young hungry US-based pros nudging some of those more experienced Europeans out of the picture. Indeed, of those afore-mentioned champions, only Spieth tees it up this week, with no less than eight East Lake first timers populating the field.
This creates a bit of guesswork in terms of the performance of some of those first-timers, though to date no one has walked away from East Lake with the trophy in their maiden trip to the venue so perhaps we can reduce the field from 30 to 22 if we back that trend to continue.
Where I’m leaning this week
In terms of my staking plan, I am going to keep things very simple this week, though perhaps a touch predictable and boring. Jordan Spieth (6.0) is the favourite on the Matchbook exchange and though the price looks on the skinny side, it is worth remembering this is a compressed field. In fact of Spieth’s tour victories, three have come in invitational or restricted fields and he has been able to justify favouritism on those and a number of other occasions. He comes into this week as the leader of the FedEx Cup standings after a season featuring three wins including the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale, and he’s finished no worse than 7th in the three playoff events thus far this season.
He’s had a win and a runner up finish in four chances at the course and has spoken very favourably about the track, comparing his comfort levels as being very similar to its Georgia neighbour Augusta, where his record speaks for itself.
Spieth has three previous Bermuda grass victories and his natural desire to win, reminiscent of a young Tiger Woods, means that you always get a true sweat with from the Texas native, regardless of how he’s seemingly playing.
Despite some gaudy approach shot and long range putting numbers, Spieth doesn’t really trigger from a statistical perspective week to week but experience tells us that on the game’s biggest stages, he is always a man to have onside. A worthy favourite and almost certain to be in contention on Sunday.
My other bet is on Kevin Chappell (46.0). The talented American enjoyed somewhat of a breakout season last year, culminating in a playoff loss here at East Lake on his course debut. However, it wasn’t until earlier this season that he finally shed his maiden status, picking up a victory at the Valero Texas Open.
That win, on the back of a top 7 finish at The Masters, propelled Chappell to the Tour Championship plus a berth on the President’s Cup team – his first time representing his country at a team event – so confidence will be high, and he looks overpriced given his body of work in high-quality fields over the past couple of seasons where he has podium finishes in The Players, WGC-Bridgestone and last season’s Tour Championship.
A solid playoff form line of T6-T35-T12 shows his game is in good nick and if he can rekindle last season’s positive memories of the course, he is well entitled to be bang in the mix.
- Jordan Spieth, 3.5 points @ 6.0
- Kevin Chappell, 1 point @ 46.0 (lay set for 8.0)