The FedExCup Playoffs are concluding this week in Atlanta, Georgia as a field of 30 golfers head to the TOUR Championship.
This finale puts a lid on the season, and playoffs, before they start right back up again next week in Napa.
The event doesn't tee off until Friday so you get one extra day to tinker. The TOUR Championship uses the normal format of 72 holes stroke-play but it has a unique twist. Golfers have been rewarded Starting Strokes in accordance with their current FedExCup position. You may remember this from last year when they introduced the idea. Justin Thomas started the week on 10-under last week but fell flat out of the gate with an even-par 70 and allowed two others to join him after day one. In the end it was Rory McIlroy who started at 5-under that escaped victoriously with an adjusted score of 18-under at week's end (-13 plus 5 starting strokes).
Looking at the table below, we can see where each of the 30 golfers will start the week.
It should be noted with Webb Simpson coming off a WD at the BMW Championship and Rory McIlroy awaiting the birth of his daughter, the starting strokes will not be readjusted following any pre-tournament WDs. Also, any golfer that ends the week with a WD or DQ will be considered having finished in last place, in terms of record keeping.
On top of all that, golfers also have a huge pool of FedExCup Bonus dollars to play for this week.
I won't go through the entire payouts for all 30 golfers but the top 8 at week's end will all be walking away with $1.1 million or more. That includes the overall champion who gets $15 milllion added to their net worth. Second place drops down to $5 million but the third-place finisher also gets a cool $4 million.
On top of the money motivation, the U.S. Open is just two weeks away so golfers will not want to let their foot on the gas. Now is the time to make their final competitive tune-ups before the next major.
East Lake Golf Club will play the host role yet again for this week's playoff finale.
The course is a Donald Ross design, plays as a par 70 that stretches up to 7,346 yards.
The fairways are very narrow and the fairway turf is zoysiagrass if you manage to hit them. Many golfers say hitting off zoysia is kind of like hitting off a tee. It's no wonder that the field lands over 80% of greens at East Lake when they are approaching from the fairway.
It helps that there are plenty of holes that give you a wedge in hand, as long as you are driving it well.
On the flip side, the field will only average about 7-of-14 fairways and their GIR Percentage when missing the fairway is less than 50 percent. Whether it's tree trouble, water trouble, or catching flyers out of the bermuda rough, this course can punish you quickly with a steady stream of bogeys if you are spraying it off the tee.
Once golfers reach the classical greens, they will be faced with bermudagrass greens that are usually prepped to run at 12 feet or faster on the stimpmeter.
With narrow fairways, punishing rough, and fast/sloped greens, it actually shares a lot of characteristics with last week's venue, Olympia Fields. The scoring conditions don't get THAT difficult at East Lake, though. We should expect a tough test, but still see a few low rounds each day.
Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Justin Thomas: "If you drive it well, you have a lot of wedges. I think I had somewhere between 140 and 150 seven times today, so I mean, that's between gap wedges and pitching wedges a lot, and if you're driving it well, you can go out and shoot 5- or 6-under. It is difficult because the greens are so tough."
Gary Woodland: "You've got to drive the ball in the fairway here. The rough is so brutal, and the greens are so fast, it turns into a ball striker's paradise. If you drive it in play, you've got to find a way to keep the ball below the hole."
Jordan Spieth: "you have a lot of uneven shots into these greens, you have a lot of uneven lies and it creates more feel and I think that's better for me the less I'm thinking about my golf swing and trying to be perfect and more feeling ball flights off of uneven slopes in the fairways. And that's similar to Augusta and I think that's why I play well there even if I wasn't playing well going into it. The undulations on the green and in the fairway create a lot of a feel aspect that I enjoy"
Patrick Reed: "It seems like this week is more of getting the ball in play, getting in the fairway because the rough is nasty. If you're playing from the short grass here, you can really go low, but if you're playing from the rough all day, it's going to be a long test."
Brooks Koepka: "Hit 8-iron, but other than that I don't think we're hitting much more than wedge in. So you can really take advantage of it if you put it in the fairway."
Overview: Golfers talk about avoiding the rough, comfort on bermuda, the need to drive the ball well, and fast greens.
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
The theme that pops this week is the penalty for missing a fairway as well as seeing courses with fast greens. On most of these courses, if you miss the fairway then you're going to have a tough time holding the green on your next shot.
Thursday: Mostly sunny with a high of 95 degrees. Calm winds at 5 to 10 MPH.
Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 93 degrees. Calm winds at 5 to MPH.
It's summertime in Atlanta so the main threat this week will be avoiding pop-up storms. Other than that, it looks like a nice forecast. HOT, but nice.
Golfers to Watch
Won in dramatic fashion last week on a brutally tough course. He also won at Muirfield Village, another tough test with fast, tricky green complexes. That makes him one of the favorites again this week but he'll start two shots behind DJ.
The beans were finally spilled last week when news surfaced that he's "awaiting the call" for his wife to go into labor. McIlroy is the defending champ this week but he'll be starting with two fewer strokes compared to last year. Add in the fact that he could back out of the field at any time to go see the birth of his first child and it makes him a risky option.
He's starting at the top this week, beginning with a score of 10-under. It's easy to see why he's the favorite to win but how has he fared at East Lake over the years? He stormed out of the gate in 2016 to lead or co-lead after R1, R2, and R3 but other than that his record here is surprisingly spotty. Back in 2017 he was asked what he liked about the layout, "Well, it’s just a really good golf course. It’s right in front of you, there’s nothing really tricky about it. There’s not a lot of trouble that’s in play. It’s just a really good course. You’ve got to do everything well, you can’t really fake it around here." DJ is doing everything well lately but he's also been proned to a few blowup rounds over the summer. Which version will we see this week?
He was right in the hunt early last week until a silly unforced error ruined his momentum on day two. It became a forgettable week from that point on but Thomas should not be overlooked this week as he heads back to a course where he's finished T7 or better in four tries. Only one of those was aided by starting strokes.
He's been the most consistent golfer on the planet since the restart. He's finished 12th, 15th, and 15th in three tries at East Lake but this is his first time playing since here since the 2017 edition. It will be a tough task for him to make up six strokes over the leader this week but Rory did it last year when starting at 5-under, Berger will open this week on 4-under along with four others.
Want to ride a wave of momentum? Finau posted the low round of the week with his Sunday 65 at Olympia Fields. One interesting thing of note is that Finau has gained strokes putting in all three trips to East Lake. That's good news for a golfer like Finau who is historically a TOUR-average putter, at best.
He won the 2017 edition of this event and has feasted in all three trips. In fact, he's gained strokes over the field in all 12 rounds played at East Lake. Pretty impressive when you consider the strength of his opponents faced in this limited-field event.
Ranking the Field
1. Dustin Johnson
2. Jon Rahm
3. Justin Thomas
4. Daniel Berger
5. Xander Schauffele
6. Harris English
7. Bryson DeChambeau
8. Collin Morikawa
9. Webb Simpson
10. Rory McIlroy
11. Hideki Matsuyama
12. Patrick Reed
13. Scottie Scheffler
14. Tony Finau
15. Sungjae Im
16. Tyrrell Hatton
17. Brendon Todd
18. Billy Horschel
19. Ryan Palmer
20. Kevin Kisner
21. Abraham Ancer
22. Lanto Griffin
23. Sebastian Munoz
24. Viktor Hovland
25. Kevin Na
26. Joaquin Niemann
27. Mackenzie Hughes
28. Cameron Champ
29. Cameron Smith
30. Marc Leishman