ATLANTA – Everything I need to know I learned last week at the Tour Championship. You ready?
Justin Thomas was my Player of the Year even before he scored the FedEx Cup title and $10 million bonus. I learned that he may be much more than that. With five victories and nearly a sixth one here, he might be his own Era in the making. Media guys say that a lot. This time I really mean it.
The Rookie of the Year is also a surprise Tour Championship winner. Even few in the media knew much about 23-year-old Xander Schauffele or could spell his name without looking it up. He is a former San Diego State star who introduced himself to America when he played his way into contention in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Like Thomas, I believe Schauffele may be much more than what we’ve seen, although maybe not his own Era. He’s got Thomas-like power, though. He owns one of the most solid swings on the PGA Tour. And he showed true grit by making a birdie on the 72nd hole Sunday at East Lake Golf Club for the victory, even if it was a nervy, hammer-handed rim job from 2½ feet (scores: http://bit.ly/2wMIusf).
“I was embarrassed,” he conceded later, after having won the Calamity Jane replica trophy. “You don’t want to win with a big swirl-around lip-in. I was sure that I’d missed it. When it did that little ring-around-the-rose and went in, I felt pretty fortunate.”
Memo to Xander: It’s now how; it’s how many. Tiger Woods said it’s all about the W’s, and you scored two in ’17. That’s a big start to a career.
Asked if this Tour Championship victory would result in more people knowing how to pronounce his name correctly (technically, it’s SHAW-fuh-luh, but he’s fine with SHAW-fuh-lay), he laughed and said, “No chance.”
Will they remember his name from now on? Absolutely.
I promise to quit griping about the confusing FedEx Cup points system and embrace the confusion instead (final standings: http://bit.ly/2fqySMD). NBC had the wrong scores up for one of the point-system updates but, hey, keeping track of what amounts to two tournaments at once is like watching a Vegas blackjack dealer work a Rubik’s Cube. It was easier trying to understand how Donald Trump won on Election Night.
When Sunday afternoon at East Lake turned into one lead change after another – for the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup – it added drama like no other golf event. At one point, the wacky possibility existed that we might see two playoffs, one between Thomas and Jordan Spieth, who were then projected to finish tied for the FedEx Cup title, and a second between Schauffele and Kevin Kisner, who were atop the Tour Championship leaderboard but separated by only a stroke.
“I saw that,” Thomas said of his brief FedEx Cup tie with Spieth. “I think I laughed.”
The PGA Tour probably would’ve hated that, but it would’ve been so uncool it would’ve been cool. Tour generals, you’ve finally got the FedEx Cup just where you want it. Don’t change anything.
Sunday’s finale showed just how breathlessly nerve-racking this unique display can be. You also should reconsider the all-but-done deal to bump it a month earlier on the schedule. If you thought it was steamy last week at East Lake, wait until you have to come back here in August. You know it’s called Hot-lanta for a reason, right?
My view of golf has dramatically changed in less than two years. We started 2016 with what we were sure was a new Big Three: Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. Two of those guys faded away like old soldiers, and one temporarily was replaced by Dustin Johnson.
So, we’ve still got Spieth, whose banner season in ’17 featured the year’s two most scintillating moments: that holed bunker shot during the playoff in Hartford and his three-act opera at Royal Birkdale.
But Thomas ultimately made Spieth’s big year look small and would’ve minimized it even more if Thomas had added the Tour Championship as his sixth title – to Spieth’s three – along with the FedEx Cup. Thomas, who shot a closing 66, birdied the 70th and 71st holes to tie for the lead but didn’t get the one he needed at the 72nd. Schauffele did, hitting it to the front fringe of the par-5 green and two-putting for the winning birdie.
“Justin Thomas is the real deal, that’s all,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said Saturday morning in a sit-down chat with a handful of writers in the NBC production truck. “He’s got that distance, the power, and he expects a lot, like Spieth. Being such a good friend of Jordan’s, I think Justin felt like the train was going down the tracks without him. Jordan really made Justin lengthen his strike and is a big part of why Justin is where he is.”
Here’s where we are going into 2018: There is no Big Three or Dynamic Duo or Magnificent Seven or Baker’s Dozen. We’ve got one very clearly delineated and newly crowned King of the Hill: your PGA and FedEx Cup champion, Thomas.
Mr. Spieth, you might want to take note.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle