News & Opinion

Rich details help appraise PGA Tour finale

It was lunchtime on Tour Championship eve Wednesday, and another media type in the dining tent asked me whether it’s still possible for one player to win the Tour Championship and another to win the FedEx Cup

ATLANTA – It was lunchtime on Tour Championship eve Wednesday, and another media type in the dining tent asked me whether it’s still possible for one player to win the Tour Championship and another to win the FedEx Cup, like what happened last year when Tiger Woods won the tournament but Justin Rose left with the FedEx Cup.

Way to do your homework, buddy. This is why America thinks we’re fake news.

I realized then that if some media members don’t grasp it, the new FedEx Cup format still must be confusing to the masses. I didn’t explain to him about the staggered start, which has Justin Thomas beginning with a two-shot lead over No. 2-seeded Patrick Cantlay and a 10-shot edge over the bottom five players in the 30-man field. But I told him there will be only one champion because there really isn’t a Tour Championship anymore. The Tour Championship winner is the FedEx Cup winner. Only one player will get a trophy, and while it’s possible that a player can shoot the lowest four-round score this week and not finish first because of the handicapped start, he will get only a tip of our sweated-out media caps and our admiration, but nothing more.

There is more to this Tour Championship-that’s-really-the-FedEx Cup Championship than meets the eye, so here’s a guide to things you need to know, and things you maybe shouldn’t know.

Rickie Fowler
Rickie Fowler, who will start the Tour Championship with an 8-stroke deficit to leader Justin Thomas, could earn more money for a 7th-place finish in Atlanta this week than he did for winning the Phoenix Open in February.

Cash cows: The players are competing for hardware, so they say, but the FedEx Cup is really all about staggering sums of money. The bonus pool is $70 million.

Last place pays $395,000: The 10th-place finisher’s take of $830,000 is $38,000 more than the Sanderson Farms Championship winner got. Rickie Fowler’s $1.278 million for winning in Phoenix is slightly less than what the FedEx Cup’s seventh-place finisher earns. The U.S. Open and the Players paid $2.25 million to their winners, less than the $2.5 million for fifth in in the FedEx Cup. This week’s runner-up wins $5 million – or two U.S. Opens plus tip money. The winner’s $15 million would be 150,000 Benjamins (hundreds), although the Tour probably won’t deliver it that way, even if requested.

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Major champions Tiger Woods and Shane Lowry aren’t playing this week, but 11 non-winners are.

The case for accountability: Rose, when asked how it felt to win $10 million and last year’s FedEx Cup, only to be completely overshadowed and overlooked by Tiger Woods’ winning the Tour Championship, said, “My bank manager didn’t mind.”

The other FedEx Cup payoff: This is the last chance for Brooks Koepka to cut his losses in a wager that he set up last fall in South Korea with Justin Thomas. The bet was to see who could hole out the most times during the season from 50 yards or beyond, at $1,000 a pop. The current score is Thomas 5, Koepka 0. “I don’t really hole out much,” Koepka said, “so that was a stupid bet on my part.”

Sunday will be payday for Thomas. “I’ve got the cash with me,” Koepka said.

A better idea for a wager: Koepka, who said he played “terrible” in the first two playoff events (T-30 at Northern Trust and T-24 at BMW), spent a lot of time on the range getting his swing back online. This week? “I’ve got it figured out,” he said. “I feel good now.” So, the No. 1 player in the world feels great about his game on a course with Bermudagrass, his favorite surface. Take the hint.

To be or not to what now? These Tour Championship entrants seem off-balance because of this whole staggered-start concept. Rory McIlroy said he’s treating the entire FedEx Cup series as a big 12-round tournament, while Thomas, the No. 1-seeded player, said it was going to be weird to tee off with a two-shot lead. Matt Kuchar said it felt like the old qualifying-school tournament (that used to be six rounds, by the way).

It’s not that tough, gents. Pretend this is a five-round tournament and you just finished the first round and find yourself three or five or 10 strokes behind, or wherever you are, and you’ve got 72 more holes to play. No need to look like you’ve just been asked to explain Shakespearean sonnets.

The fall of the fall: The good news for the players who didn’t make the Tour Championship is that the 2019-2020 season starts after a two-week layoff with A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. The bad news is, don’t expect to see the world’s No. 1 player for a while.

Koepka hinted that he’ll start the new season in mid-October at the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in South Korea, which he won a year ago, but he isn’t sure what domestic tournaments, if any, he’ll play before the Presidents Cup in Australia in December.

As for the next six to eight weeks, Koepka said, “This is our offseason.” Well, that’s not what the PGA Tour schedule indicates, but . . .

Iron Man: The hardest-working man in the Tour Championship field has to be rookie Sungjae Im of South Korea. He played in 34 tournaments, the most of anyone in the field, and two more than any other player on tour in 2019. He missed playing only two weeks all season when he was eligible.

Missing in action: Dustin Johnson hasn’t finished better than 20th since his runner-up at the PGA Championship in May. And here’s a key stat that might mean nothing: He ranks 185th in percentage of eagles made.

A Pat hand: It won’t be lost on Presidents Cup captain Tiger Woods or Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker that Patrick Reed and Patrick Cantlay like to play together. They joined forces to play the Zurich Classic, and their comments this week about why they enjoy each other’s company make them a lock as a pairing in Australia in December (if Reed, who ranked 12th on the points list, is one of Woods’ four wild-card picks) and next year in Wisconsin, if both make the team, as expected.

“I really enjoy competitive people,” said Cantlay, who first played a practice round with Reed in the Western Amateur when he was a teenager. “I always felt, just like me, he was going to be competitive and in every shot, no matter where the ball was. I’ve always had great interactions with Patrick.”

The U.S. team failed to find a suitable partner for Reed at the Ryder Cup in France after the previously successful duo of Reed and Jordan Spieth was split up.

Ironic quote of the week: PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, on the complicated nature of fixing the tour’s slow-play problem: “We’ve been working on this, and we can be criticized for taking too long, but …”

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle