News & Opinion

PGA will help set table for playoff feast

ST. LOUIS – The season’s last major championship is upon us, and this time, whether the PGA of America owns the slogan anymore or not, the PGA Championship at Bellerive really is Glory’s Last Shot. The PGA moves to May in the revamped and condensed 2018-19 PGA Tour schedule, sandwiched between the Masters and U.S. Open. But as we gather at Bellerive, there is, as usual, history at stake, with lots of side dishes. Around the corner is a Ryder Cup next month near Paris, where the United States will try to win on foreign soil for the first time in a quarter-century. 

In between? Well, it’s time to cue up your favorite embattled Jim Mora YouTube video: Playoffs? PLAYOFFS? This will be the last time the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs will be a four-pronged monster, with competitors elbowing for better position at the Northern Trust (Ridgewood, N.J.), Dell Technologies (Norton, Mass.) and BMW (Newtown Square, Pa.) on their way to the big dance at Atlanta’s East Lake, the season-ending Tour Championship. Next year, there will be three playoff stops.

With only two events left in the regular season (this week's PGA and next week’s Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C.), and some players opting for a breather next week amid an intense stretch of golf, there are some prominent players residing on the outside of that Tour Championship bubble. 

Only twice in FedEx Cup history has an overall champion started outside of the top 30. Billy Horschel began the 2014 playoffs in 69th but sizzled at the finish, going 2-1-1 to close out his run. And two years ago, Rory McIlroy came from 36th position to capture two playoff starts, Deutsche Bank (now Dell) and the Tour Championship, to finish on top. 

Here are 10 intriguing players who are out of position to make the Tour Championship (with FedEx Cup ranking) and in need of making a big move:

95. Daniel Berger: A year after winning again in Memphis and making his first U.S. Presidents Cup team, the uber-confident Berger hasn’t played very well. He notched his lone top 10 of the season at the U.S. Open (T-6) but has failed to give himself enough quality birdie looks (128th in birdies) and has not scrambled well (T-145 in strokes gained around the green). Outside of Shinnecock, last week’s T-48 at the no-cut WGC-Bridgestone marks his only other top-50 finish since Augusta.

92. Charley Hoffman: Hoffman was coming off one of his best seasons on Tour in 2016-17. He didn’t win, but twice was a runner-up, finished third twice and had seven top 10s in all. He, like Berger, was rewarded with a spot on the Presidents Cup team. This season, he has failed to notch a single top 10 in 22 starts heading to the PGA. One promising sign heading into Bellerive is that some of his best play of 2018 has come in the majors: T-12 at the Masters, T-20 at the U.S. Open, T-17 at the British Open. He ranks 171st in driving accuracy (55.57 percent) and 167th in strokes gained around the green. 

87. Hideki Matsuyama: It really wasn’t that long ago that this guy was the hottest player on the planet. He won five times in nine starts around the globe in late 2016/early 2017. An injured left thumb and wrist has kept him from being his best this season, with his lone top 10 of 2018 being a tie for fourth at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. (He did have a T-5 at the CIMB last fall.) He has struggled driving the ball with consistency and hasn’t been able to make up for it with his putting (he ranks 116th in strokes gained putting). The good news? He’s only 26. 

Brandt Snedeker
At No. 77 in the FedEx Cup standings, Brandt Snedeker needs some solid performances to return to the Tour Championship.

© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
At No. 77 in the FedEx Cup standings, Brandt Snedeker needs some solid performances to return to the Tour Championship.

77. Brandt Snedeker: The 2012 FedEx Cup champion also is trying to come back from an odd rib/sternum injury that ended his season in summer a year ago and limited him to one start over six months. Of late, there have been some nice flashes: T-6 in Memphis, T-3 at Greenbrier (earning a spot at the British Open) and T-8 at the RBC Canadian. But he has had too many missed cuts to be any higher than 77th in FedEx Cup points. He ranks outside the top 120 in strokes gained off the tee (128th), greens in regulation (149th) and birdie average (135th). Snedeker will play PGA and Wyndham to improve his lot. He has made the Tour Championship in five of the past seven seasons. 

75. Kevin Chappell: At 31, he won his first PGA Tour title (Valero Texas Open) and joined several other promising rookies on the U.S. Presidents Cup team. He started the playoffs a year ago on the bubble (at No. 30) and responded well, tying for sixth at the Northern Trust to move up comfortably and earn his way to the Tour Championship for a second consecutive season. This season he has struggled mightily with his putting (179th) and strokes gained around the green (164th). His ball-striking remains solid. 

58. Matt Kuchar: He made a nice move up the points list with a decent showing at WGC-Bridgestone (T-14), posting his third T-15 finish in his past five PGA Tour starts, including a tie for ninth at Carnoustie. At 40, Kuchar has a lot on the line in the coming weeks. The last time that Kuchar, who played college golf at Georgia Tech, failed to make the Tour Championship was in 2009. He owns a solid record at East Lake, finishing 15th or better in five of the past six seasons. He also hopes to extend a run of eight consecutive Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup teams. His best finish this season is a T-5 in Phoenix. 

56. Jimmy Walker: The 2016 PGA champion continues to work to overcome a bout with Lyme disease that sapped his energy. Walker hasn’t played very well since tying for sixth at the Byron Nelson in Texas in May. He has struggled off the tee (199th in driving accuracy), which has led to missed greens and higher scoring (he ranks 79th, at 70.71). Walker missed the Tour Championship in 2017 after playing three consecutive years at East Lake. 

49. Henrik Stenson: He wasn’t in very good shape heading into last year’s PGA Championship, either, but then he had a nice Carolina double, tying for 13th at Quail Hollow in the PGA and winning at Wyndham to salvage his season. He has played OK this season – five top 10s in 12 starts, including T-5 at the Masters and T-6 at the U.S. Open. He simply hasn’t played enough. Trying to get to East Lake should be worth the grind for Stenson, who, in two appearances, won in 2013 en route to the FedEx Cup and tied for second (2015). 

47. Tiger Woods: Well, we didn’t know what to expect from Woods, or just how much his health would allow him to play, so seeing him inside the top 50 in FedEx Cup points is actually a pretty nice bonus. He has indicated that he doesn’t plan to play Wyndham (where he contended in his first visit, in 2015) but will play the PGA and the first two playoff events to see where it lands him. He has had his chances on Sundays this season at Valspar (T-2), Arnold Palmer (T-5), and at Carnoustie, where he held the Open lead on the back nine of the final round. But unlike the Tiger of old, he failed to close the deal at any of those three starts, and the result is a gap that he needs to make up if he wants to get back to East Lake for the first time since 2013. 

43. Jordan Spieth: In five seasons on the PGA Tour, Spieth has been a model of consistency, his worst year-end FedEx ranking being 15th in 2014 – also the last season in which he failed to win. Yet it’s crunch time, and Spieth ranks 43rd in FedEx Cup points. There is little mystery as to what has held him back: Spieth ranks 165th in strokes gained putting. He can’t wait to put this season in a rearview mirror. Then again, a few good weeks would change his outlook. The 2015 FedEx Cup champion has an uncanny knack of finding his way into the mix at golf’s biggest events; even this year he rose with a Sunday 64 at Augusta and was co-leader of the British Open after 54 holes (he faded to T-9). Spieth needs the PGA to complete his career Grand Slam. You wouldn’t think his game is there, but he has amazed us before. 

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: jeffbabz@att.net. Twitter: @jeffbabz62