Jordan Spieth holds several distinctions coming into this week’s Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club.
Spieth is No. 1 in the FedExCup standings after runner-up finishes in the first two Playoffs events and a tie for seventh last week in Chicago.
He is also the only player in the 30-man field to have ever won the Tour Championship or taken home the FedExCup trophy.
Rory McIlroy, who won last year’s Tour Championship to capture the FedExCup title, is missing from the field this year, as are former East Lake winners Billy Horschel, Henrik Stenson, Bill Haas, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott. Both Stenson and Mickelson missed qualifying by the narrowest of margins and will join the likes of Louis Oosthuizen and 2016 Tour Championship playoff participant Ryan Moore on the list of players who will not be in the field when the tournament tees off Thursday.
Even with the absence of some of the game’s most prominent players, the field at East Lake will not lack for star power.
Joining Spieth in the field are the Nos. 2 and 3 players in the FedExCup standings – Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson, who outdueled Spieth for victories in the first two Playoffs events. Marc Leishman, who won impressively last week in Chicago after placing third in the previous tournament in Boston, comes into the Tour Championship fourth in the standings, with Rookie of the Year shoo-in Jon Rahm fifth after finishing third, fourth and fifth in the first three Playoffs events.
Any one of the top five is guaranteed to win the FedExCup title should they also win the Tour Championship, but a number of past champions claimed the title after coming into East Lake outside the top five. McIlroy was sixth on the points list going into last year’s Tour Championship.
Spieth enters the tournament as a strong favorite considering the quality of his play of late and his track record at East Lake. Johnson and Thomas shot final rounds of 66 in New York and Boston to deny Spieth a victory, with Johnson needed a playoff to prevail in the Playoffs opener.
In his first start at East Lake at the age of 20 in 2013, Spieth shot 64 in the final round to tie for second behind Stenson, and cruised to a 4-stroke victory in 2015, with Stenson among a trio of runners-up.
Spieth and Thomas are the two primary contenders for Player of the Year honors, with Thomas holding the edge in wins (5 to 3), but Spieth having a slightly better overall resume with a trio of second place showings, two in the Playoffs.
Thomas won three of four starts early in the 2016-17 schedule, repeating as a champion in Malaysia last fall before taking the first two events of 2017 in Hawaii. He went quiet for a long stretch before his impressive final round in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, and broke away late to win in Boston a few weeks ago.
Spieth won in early 2017 at Pebble Beach and later at Hartford with his hole-out from a bunker on the 72nd hole before his sensational stretch run to defeat Matt Kuchar in the British Open.
Johnson looked unbeatable early this season with consecutive wins in Los Angeles and the WGC events in Mexico City and the Match Play before suffering a fluke injury just prior to the Masters that sidelined him for a month. Johnson played respectably upon his return, but was a non-factor in the last three majors of the year before capturing a fourth victory in a playoff over Spieth in New York.
Thomas will be playing in just his second Tour Championship, tying for sixth last year. Johnson is playing at East Lake for the eighth time in the last nine years, and after taking a few years to solve the mysteries of Rees Jones’ redesigned layout, has placed fifth, fifth and sixth the last three years, sharing the lead after 54 holes in 2016.
With the exception of his final nine holes in Boston, Leishman has played exceptional golf in his last two Playoffs starts, but will be playing East Lake for the first time since his rookie year of 2009, when he finished next to last.
Although the Tour Championship winner has not always come into the tournament among the leading favorites, it will be a definite surprise if the champion does not come from the trio of Spieth, Thomas and Johnson or a handful of players who begin the week in the top 10 on the points list.
Rickie Fowler (No. 6) is coming off a tie for second in Chicago, and although his only win of 2017 came in February in south Florida, he has been a fixture on leader boards all year with several near misses. In his previous three starts at East Lake, his best finish is T8 in 2014.
Since blowing away the field with a final round 61 in the WGC event at Firestone and tying for fifth the next week in the PGA, Hideki Matsuyama (No. 7) has been a non-factor in the Playoffs. He was fifth last year in his third Tour Championship appearance.
Justin Rose (No. 8) has won a U.S. Open and an Olympics Gold Medal, and is a frequent contender in major events, tying for second last week in Chicago. He has an exemplary record at East Lake, finishing second, sixth, T4 and T2 four straight years from 2012 to ’15, and is back in the field after failing to qualify last year.
After his victory in the U.S. Open and a tie for sixth in the British, Brooks Koepka (No. 9) was relatively quiet before shooting a 63 in the final round Sunday in Chicago. He had a middle-of-the-pack finish in his only start at East Lake in 2015.
Paul Casey (No. 10) has a successful history at East Lake, placing fourth or fifth in all three of his starts there, including each of the last two years. While Casey is a good bet to contend this week, his history indicates that a victory is a much longer shot.
Other veterans who have played well in the past at East Lake include Jason Day, a contender in both 2011 and ’14. Day, who withdrew with an injury last year, is still battling a balky back, but managed to place fourth last week in Chicago. Scott Simpson has a pair of top fives at East Lake and Masters champion Sergio Garcia was fourth and second in consecutive years about a decade ago, and is back in Atlanta for the first time since 2014. He has lost playoffs in the Tour Championship in both Houston and Atlanta.
Experience at East Lake is not a necessity, as Kevin Chappell played superbly in his first Tour Championship start last year, losing to McIlroy in a playoff after posting scores of 66-68-68-66.
This year’s rookie class is led by Rahm, and includes fellow rookie Xander Schauffele, veteran Pat Perez, Savannah’s Bran Harman, Canada’s Adam Hadwin, former Clemson Tiger Kyle Stanley, Patrick Cantlay and big-hitting Tony Finau. Cantlay began play in 2017 on a medical extension and qualified for the Playoffs despite making just nine starts in the regular season. He placed 10th, 13th and 9th in the three Playoffs events.
Veteran Charley Hoffman and youngster Daniel Berger rank near the top of the list of dark horse candidates, with Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed looking to improve on indifferent track records at East Lake . Kuchar and Reed are part of a quintet of players in the field who played their college golf in the state, joining former Georgia Bulldogs Harman, Kevin Kisner and Russell Henley.
Rounding out the field are two other players who fall into the bomber category – Gary Woodland and Jhonattan Vegas — and one who doesn’t – Jason Dufner, the runner-up in the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.
The nines were reversed for tournament play last year and that will be the case again this week. All players will begin their rounds on a long par 4 converted from a par 5, with the opening nine ending with a long par 3 that formerly served as East Lake’s 18th hole.
By flipping the nines, several of East Lake’s most dramatic holes can now be found near the end of the round, including the most difficult hole on the course (the long par-4 14th), the island green par-3 15th and the risk/reward par-5 18th, which proved to be a more worthy finishing hole than its predecessor.
Golf Channel will have complete coverage of the first two rounds Thursday and Friday and early coverage Saturday and Sunday, leading directly into NBC’s broadcasts the final two days.