The Tour Championship turns 30 this week, with Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club hosting the event for the 17th time. The historic Atlanta club held the PGA Tour’s season-ending event for the first time in 1998 and shared duties as tournament host with the Champions Club in Houston before becoming the permanent home of the Tour Championship in 2004.
The first Tour Championship was played in 1987 under the sponsorship of Nabisco, and changed sites ever year or two before the PGA Tour settled on Atlanta as the host city.
Oak Hills in San Antonio, the host at the time of the Texas Open hosted the first Tour Championship, with the next three also played at courses that hosted PGA Tour events – Pebble Beach, Harbour Town and Houston’s Champions Club, a former tour host.
From 1991-97, the event spent two years at three clubs with major championship histories – Pinehurst, the Olympic Club and Southern Hills in Tulsa, before Champions Club and East Lake alternated host duties for the next eight years.
The early years of the event included some prominent early champions and four straight playoffs from 1988-91. Tom Watson went wire to wire to win the first Tour Championship, with Curtis Strange taking a playoff over Tom Kite at Pebble Beach and Kite claiming a playoff victory over Payne Stewart the following year at Harbour Town.
The Tour Championship field was limited to the top 30 money winners from 1987-2006 (the top 30 on the FedExCup points list since), but has produced some winners who are never going to be in the conversation for Hall of Fame induction.
The first of those was former Georgia Southern golfer Jodie Mudd, one of two past champions who played collegiately in the state. Mudd won at Champions in 1990 over Billy Mayfair, with fellow non-legend Russ Cochran losing in extra holes to past Masters champion Craig Stadler in 1991 at Pinehurst.
Paul Azinger broke the playoff streak with a 3-shot victory in ’92 at Pinehurst, with Jim Gallagher and Mark McCumber wining the next two years at the Olympic Club, the latter in a playoff over Fuzzy Zoeller.
Mayfair won at Southern Hills in ’95, with Tom Lehman becoming the first runaway winner in ’96, romping to a 6-shot victory.
Former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket David Duval edged out Jim Furyk at Champions in 1997, with Hal Sutton taking the first Tour Championship at East Lake in ’98, winning in a playoff over Vijay Singh with Furyk and Jesper Parnevik both one shot back.
Tiger Woods won the Tour Championship for the first time in ’99 in Houston in a tournament best remembered for an absence of golf Friday to allow the competitors to attend Stewart’s funeral.
Phil Mickelson took the first of his two final round duels over Woods at East Lake in 2000, closing with a 66 to erase a 2-shot deficit to Woods after 54 holes. The 2001 Tour Championship ended in a 4-way tie after 72 holes, with Mike Weir carding a birdie on the first extra hole to quickly conclude a playoff that included Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and David Toms.
Singh won by two at East Lake in 2002 over Augusta native Charles Howell, with Howell also finishing as runner-up the next year in the final Tour Championship in Houston behind Chad Campbell.
Woods joined Howell with back-to-back second place finishes in 2004 and ’05. He and Jay Haas led Retief Goosen by four shots after 54 holes in ’04, but Goosen fired a blistering 64 to finish four in front of Woods. The following year, Woods wound up a distant six shots behind Bart Bryant, perhaps the most low-profile champion in the event’s three decades. Bryant opened with a course record 62 en route to a record-breaking total of 17-under 263.
Adam Scott won by three in ’06 over Furyk, with both Woods and Mickelson absent from the field. Mickelson, who also skipped the 2005 Tour Championship, elected to shut it down for the season after the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, both of which concluded about a month before the Tour Championship. Woods begged off in ’06 citing fatigue, resting up for some lucrative guaranteed paydays in Japan and China.
Partly as a result of the lack of interest by the game’s two most prominent players in its season-ending event, the PGA Tour created the FedExCup Playoffs in 2007 and moved the Tour Championship from early November to mid-to-late September.
Both Woods and Mickelson were back in the field in ’07 and Woods took advantage of a defense-less East Lake to shatter Bryant’s course record, posting a 23-under 257 total to win by a whopping eight shots. Overshadowed that week was a course record 60 by Zach Johnson, who won the Masters earlier that year.
In 2008, East Lake replaced its bent grass greens, which were rendered soft and relatively slow by the summer heat the year before. The winning score in ’08 (7-under 273) was the highest since the first Tour Championship at East Lake in 1998,ands hasn’t gone below 13-under since. In one of the most dramatic final rounds in tournament history, Camilo Villegas erased a 5-stroke deficit after 54 holes, closing with a 66 before winning a playoff over third round leader Garcia, with Mickelson and Anthony Kim both finishing one shot back.
Mickelson and Woods staged another duel in ’09, with Mickelson coming from four back going to the final round with a 65, finishing three in front of Woods. Neither player has contended in the event since, with Mickelson remaining the only player to win twice at East Lake. Mickelson has also captured multiple titles in two other Georgia tournaments, winning the Masters and defunct BellSouth Classic three times each. He also won the American Junior’s Rolex Tournament of Champions three straight years when that event was played at Horseshoe Bend in Roswell.
After several close calls, Furyk won in the rain in 2010, edging Luke Donald by a shot. In the 16 years East Lake has hosted the Tour Championship, that was the only the tournament decided by one shot. There have been four playoffs, with the winning margin at least three on nine occasions.
Bill Haas won the third of four playoffs at East Lake in 2011 due in part to his famous recovery shot from the edge of the lake bordering the 17th green, with the next four Tour Championships all decided by at least three shots.
Brandt Snedeker won by three over Justin Rose in 2012, with Henrik Stenson going wire to wire the next year, winning by three over Jordan Spieth and Steve Stricker with a 13-under total. A red-hot Billy Horschel repeated Stenson’s wire-to-wire feat to win by three over Furyk and Rory McIlroy.
After earlier runner-up finishes, Spieth and McIlroy claimed Tour Championship titles in 2015 and ’16. Spieth cruised to a 4-shot win over Stenson, Rose and Danny Lee in 2015. After four years of drama-free final rounds, McIlroy shot a final round 64 last year to play his way into a three-way playoff with Ryan Moore, who also closed with a 64, and Ryan Moore, who shot 66 Sunday.
Both McIlroy and Moore trailed Chappell and Dustin Johnson by two shots heading to the final round, but Johnson faded to the finish with a 73 and relinquished his spot to McIlroy as the leader in the FedExCup standings.