The final FedExCup Playoffs event prior to the Tour Championship concluded with a considerable amount of drama that left two of the game’s most prominent players outside the top 30 in the points standings that determined the field at East Lake.
While Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia were knocked out of the top 30 during the final round of the Playoffs event at Crooked Stick, almost all of golf’s biggest names will be in the field at East Lake. Along with them is a surprise last-minute push by an Atlanta resident and former Georgia Tech standout, who is back in the Tour Championship after qualifying as a second-year PGA Tour pro in 2013.
Roberto Castro, who grew up in the north Fulton suburb of Alpharetta before enjoying an outstanding collegiate career at Georgia Tech, vaulted from 53rd in the standings to 21st after placing third at Crooked Stick behind Dustin Johnson and Paul Casey, who secured two of the coveted top-5 FedExCup spots along with Patrick Reed, Adam Scott and Jason Day.
Only the top five players are guaranteed a FedExCup title with a victory at East Lake, with Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth finishing in the sixth and seventh positions. McIlroy won the Playoffs event in Boston, with Spieth the defending Tour Championship and FedExCup champion.
Joining Castro and Reed, who led Augusta State to back-to-back NCAA Championships, in Atlanta are three other players with Georgia ties – former Georgia Tech standout Matt Kuchar, a St. Simon’s Island resident, and ex-Georgia Bulldogs Bubba Watson and Kevin Kisner, who lives in Aiken, S.C.
Seven other Georgians made it to the third of the four Playoffs events but finished between 47th and 64th to miss out on an invitation to East Lake. That group includes Augusta natives Charles Howell and Vaughn Taylor, former UGA golfers Harris English, Brian Harman, Chris Kirk and Hudson Swafford, and veteran Zach Johnson, like English, Harman and Swafford a St. Simon’s resident. English (Valdosta), Harman (Savannah) and Kirk (Woodstock) are also Georgia natives, with Kirk recently returning to Athens to live.
Castro, Casey and Sean O’Hair made the biggest moves in the Playoffs to make it to the Tour Championship. O’Hair tied for second behind Reed at Bethpage Black to jump from 108 to 15, and ended up 25th. Casey started 68th before advancing to 10th after his first runner-up finish. Castro dropped from 53 to 64 after missing the cut at Bethpage, but moved back up to 53 after a T24 in Boston.
Needing a finish of no lower than fourth at Crooked Stick to make it back to East Lake, Castro took the opening round lead with a 7-under 65 and followed with another 65 the next day to share the 36-hole lead with Dustin Johnson, who caught him thanks to a 63.
Castro was paired with Johnson and Casey in the third round, and had an up-close-and-personal look at golf’s most dominating player, with Johnson shooting a 68 to take a 3-stroke lead over Casey. Castro played respectably, but after holing a string of long putts and hitting it close enough to produce 15 birdies the first two days, he did not make a birdie in the third round although he had his chances. Castro’s 74 dropped him to fourth, six behind Johnson, and he was paired in the final round with J.B. Holmes, one of a handful of players who can match Johnson’s length off the tee.
Knowing he needed to move past Holmes on the leader board to ensure his hopes of qualifying for the Tour Championship, Castro got the final round off to an excellent start when he birdied the first hole. A bogey at the second, where he 3-putted from eight feet, could have started Castro down the path to another over-par round, but he played the last five holes on the front nine in 4-under, carding birdies on both par 5s and holing a shot from 160 yards for eagle on the par-4 seventh.
His matter-of-fact response to his hole-out attracted some momentary attention from the NBC broadcast crew, which did not seem to know much about him except that he attended Georgia Tech and lives in Atlanta.
Castro was never able to catch Johnson or Casey, who both closed with 67, but he matched that score with a second two-putt birdie on a par 5 on the back nine along with a few deft par saves. One of them came after NBC incorrectly reported his tee shot on the par-3 17th found the water, mistaking the splash made by a startled frog and a leaping fish for his golf ball, which was imbedded on the bank. Castro finished three behind Casey and six in back of Johnson, but did not have to sweat out his FedExCup status down the stretch, finishing five shots in front of five players who tied for fourth, including Kuchar and Holmes.
Kuchar, who came into Crooked Stick 28th in the standings, needed a strong showing to return to East Lake and got it, moving up to 16th in the final standings.
Kisner, who began the Playoffs 11th after an outstanding start to his 2015-16 season, highlighted by a win in the RSM Classic at Sea Island GC, wound up 19th. Watson turned in a solid effort to move up from 27 to 24, which is where he stood beginning the Playoffs.
Tying Kuchar for fourth was Charl Schwartzel, who shot 64 the final day to move up 13 spots to finish 30th, edging Fowler by less than a point. Both finished with 1,607 points. Garcia struggled on the weekend and fell to 32nd, with Ryder Cup teammate Henrik Stenson not playing at Crooked Stick due to injury and falling from 24th to 36th after starting the Playoffs in 14th place.
U.S. Ryder Cupper Brooks Koepka started the Playoffs 19th, but lost ground every week and missed the Tour Championship at 35th. Also missing out on a trip to East Lake after beginning the Playoffs in the top 30 was Branden Grace, Smylie Kaufman, Graeme McDowell and 2011 Tour Championship winner and FedExCup champion Bill Haas.
Among the 30 players qualifying for the Tour Championship were PGA champion Jimmy Walker (10), 2012 tournament winner and FedExCup champion Brandt Snedeker (11), youngster Justin Thomas (12), two-time Tour Championship winner Phil Mickelson (13), career non-winner Kevin Chappell (15), Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama (17), Kevin Na (22) and Jason Dufner (27).
Tour Championship rookies along with Thomas and Chappell include Russell Knox (8), Emiliano Grillo (9), 21-year-old Korean Si Woo Kim (18), William McGirt (23), Daniel Berger (26) and Jhonattan Vegas (29). Rounding out the field are Ryan Moore (14), Gary Woodland (20) and Holmes, who parred the last hole to hang on to the 28th spot and keep Fowler out.
Several of the absent stars are members of the European Ryder Cup team, which will have exactly one player in the Tour Championship field. McIlroy needed his win in Boston to qualify and will be one of just three Europeans in the field.
Casey, who had back-to-back runner-up finishes in Boston and Indiana, has dropped his European Tour membership and is no longer eligible for the Ryder Cup team. Knox, who plays in the U.S. full time, was passed over for a captain’s pick in part because he plays so infrequently in Europe.
Garcia narrowly missed the top 30, while Olympics gold medalist Justin Rose finished 51st. Masters champion Danny Willett elected not to compete in the Playoffs after becoming a PGA Tour member this year, while Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood have both given up their PGA Tour memberships.
The most prominent Americans to miss the Tour Championship are veterans Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk, who was sidelined for more than half the 2015-16 season. Furyk has been an almost annual participant since before the event came to East Lake, winning the tournament in the rain in 2010 to also take the FedExCup title.
Past champions in the field are Spieth, Snedeker, Mickelson (2000 and ’09) and Scott (2006).
Dustin Johnson comes into the Tour Championship with three wins in his last eight starts and has enjoyed a remarkably successful season with the exception of a poor opening round in the PGA Championship. He has placed fifth in his last two starts at East Lake.
Spieth tied for second in his first appearance at East Lake and will be looking to become the first repeat winner, which would give him three wins in what has been considered a sub-standard season. Day, who has three top 10s at East Lake the last five years, has had another big year, but had to withdraw at Crooked Stick with a bad back.
Like Spieth, McIlroy has had a profitable year, but not one considered up to his standards. He was second at East Lake two years ago.
Mickelson and Scott are the players with the longest records of success at East Lake. Scott had five top 10s and a win in 2006, and is back in the field after missing out last year. Mickelson has been absent from the Tour Championship the last two years and has a mixed record in the tournament, twice taking down Tiger Woods in the final round to win and coming within a shot of a playoff in 2008 in one of the best-ever Tour Championship finishes.
Among the Georgia contingent, Watson has the best record with a pair of fifth-place finishes, one of them last year. Castro tied for ninth in his lone appearance three years ago, but Kuchar has never been better than 10th in six starts, with Reed and Kisner looking for their first strong showings after three combined starts the last two years.