A PGA Tour season that started 11 months ago, sees its conclusion this week with its 48th event; the final 30 players in the FedEx Cup standings going all out for a 10 million dollar bonus prize in addition to the $1.6million prize for winning the tournament. Five men – Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Rose, Tony Finau, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas – will lock up the bonus if they are triumphant, with a host of mathematical permutations giving everyone in the finale a chance should all of those five fail to fire.
The tournament is played once again at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia, the Donald Ross design has been the sole venue for the season ender throughout the FedEx Cup era. A 7,362-yard par 70 featuring undulating Bermudagrass greens, the course is reasonably straightforward in the sense that there are no tricks to it, but players will have to be on point with all assets of their game in order to contend.
Given the tree-lined fairways, and reasonably penal Bermudagrass rough, putting the ball in play off the tee is the one area where a player can give themselves a real advantage over the field but iron play, scrambling and putting is all going to be given a thorough examination, with shaved run-off areas around the lightning fast greens requiring all facets of a players game to be in fantastic shape.
As you’d expect in an event with a ten-figure sum awaiting one of its entrants, the Tour wants its winner to be the best all-around player.
Historically, experience at East Lake has been a distinct positive, with eight of the 10 winners from 2007-2016 having had a prior top 10 finish at the course. However, the six first-timers in the field will take great encouragement from Xander Schaufelle’s win last year, as the rookie put on a ball striking clinic to seal the deal during his first go around.
It would not surprise to see DeChambeau, Tommy Fleetwood or Francesco Molinari win on debut given the course looks perfect for their game but I still generally favour those with competitive experience of the humid conditions and the relatively rare Zoysiagrass fairways.
The FedEx Cup bonus pool does create a slightly unique feel to this event but it’s worth noting that since its inception in 2007, only Justin Thomas (2017) and Vijay Singh (2008) have won the FedEx Cup without actually winning the Tour Championship. This is in spite of the fact that of the Tour Championship winners this decade, only Billy Horschel came into the event off the back of a top 10. As much as the Tour has attempted to make the FedEx Cup a season-long narrative, it essentially sets its conclusion up as a one event shootout for all the beans.
This week’s outright picks
One man who is familiar with winning when it’s all on the line is my headline pick, Tiger Woods.
At the start of the season I thought there was no way in hell I’d have been putting him up in any tournament ever again, and I was actively looking to take him on in match bets, but he has been incredibly impressive in his comeback from potentially career-ending back surgeries and is now a threat again every week.
There is no doubt the competitive fires still burn fiercely within the 14 time major winner, and winning the Tour Championship for the first time since 2007 (he also has four runner-up finishes at East Lake) would represent potentially his most unlikely and impressive achievement throughout his game-changing career.
Having started the BMW Championship with a faultless 62, his lowest round on Tour for five years, Tiger ended up finishing tied for 6th, only a second round 70 stopping him from finishing closer to eventual winning Keegan Bradley.
The 6th place finish was his fourth such finish in his last seven events, a period during which he’s gained strokes off the tee in all but one event – the one facet of his game that seemed to be holding him back at the start of the year.
Having reunited with his trusted Scott Cameron putter last time out Tiger’s confidence on the greens will be sky high and if he can bring his seasonal iron form to the party – he leads the Tour in strokes gained: approach – then he will no doubt be bang in contention.
Tiger has made a career out of writing his own narratives but winning the Tour Championship (and potentially the FedEx Cup) in a season that he started ranked outside the world’s top 600 would be his most unbelievable yet. It could well happen.
My next best bet for this week is another man who finished tied for 6th at the BMW Championship, Webb Simpson. The world number 17 enters the season’s finale at 11th in the FedEx Cup ranking, having won the Players Championship at Sawgrass, amongst 8 top 10s on the season.
One of those top 10s was a runner-up finish at Sedgefield – where he perennially contends – one of the few tracks to feature Zoysiagrass fairways, whilst he also finished top 20 at Bellerive during the US PGA Championship, another course to feature such fairways, so he clearly enjoys that particular quirk.
Alongside that, he’s a Bermudagrass greens specialist – ranking 18th over the past four seasons in strokes gained on that strand vs his average expected strokes gained.
Indeed six of his eight top 10s this season have been on Bermudagrass greens so clearly he likes the way the ball rolls on this type of grass. He’s got two top fives on his resume here previously so the course fits his eye and we’ve seen players with his profile go well previously, with methodical types Brandt Snedeker and Bill Haas both taking him the loot in the past. Simpson is not afraid of winning on the biggest stage, as evidenced by his Players win and 2012 US Open triumph and it would not be a shock if he were to go in again this week in this reduced field.
My final pick is someone who carried our money at a huge price in the afore-mentioned PGA Championship, leading the event into the third round before settling for a tie for 6th, Gary Woodland. The 34-year-old from Kansas is teeing it up at East Lake for the 6th time and could well go close at a big price, having previously recorded two top 10 finishes at the course.
He has spoken of his love for Zoysiagrass in the past, stating that he grew up on those types of fairways in his native Kansas and he that feels able to be very aggressive with his iron play on those tracks, and his ability with the driver should stand him in good stead, given he ranks 3rd in strokes gained off the tee for the season.
Entering the event with an improving form line reading 48-24-12, the Tour’s leader in the ball striking stat looks well set to outrun his huge odds and could well be in contention once again on Sunday.
- Tiger Woods – 3 points @ 14.0 (lay 3 points @ 3.00)
- Webb Simpson – 1 point @ 31.0 (lay 3 points @ 6.00)
- Gary Woodland – 1 point @ 71.0 (lay 5 points @ 9.00)