If the Tour Championship was to designate a theme song for the 2019 tournament, the obvious choice would be David Bowie’s “Changes.”
This week’s tournament has new dates, a new scoring format, new public parking locations and several other new additions. The altered scoring format is covered in an accompanying article here and general information about the tournament can be found at TOURChampionship.com.
This will be the earliest the tournament has ever been played, with the Tour Championship moved up a month to August 22-25 to avoid conflicts with college and pro football. The PGA of America accommodated the PGA Tour by moving the PGA Championship from early August to May, giving the tour one major event each month from March through July, followed by the FedExCup Playoffs in August. The number of Playoffs events has been reduced from three to two, with New York and Boston now alternating host duties for the opener.
Most (but not all) of the game’s top 30 players will be teeing it up at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club this week. The most prominent name missing is that of defending champion and 2019 Masters winner Tiger Woods, who began the Playoffs 28th in the FedExCup standings but ended up 42nd, disappointing his legion of local fans as well as the broadcast crew of the Golf Channel and NBC, who face diminished ratings despite the best efforts of the PGA Tour to boost them.
Also missing from the 30-man field are Phil Mickelson, the only player other than Woods to win twice at East Lake, the last two British Open champions (Shane Lowry and Francesco Molinari), several recent Tour Championship winners other than Woods (Jordan Spieth, Billy Horschel and Henrik Stenson), and major champions Jason Day, Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson, with the latter two not making it to the second Playoffs event last week in Chicago.
Woods, Molinari and Lowry are the only players from the World Golf Ranking top 20 not in the field, with Lowry the highest ranked player in the FedExCup standings coming into the Playoffs (20) failing to qualify. Molinari (25) and Woods were also in the top 30, as was St. Simons Island resident J.T. Poston, who was 27th after winning the final event of the regular season in Greensboro. But Poston slipped to 32nd despite a strong showing last week at Medinah.
Three players ranked 50 or lower at the end of the regular season made it to East Lake, including former Augusta State standout Patrick Reed, who won the Playoffs opener in New York and begins the Tour Championship in fourth place after starting the Playoffs at No. 50. Louis Oosthuizen moved up from 51 to 27 after top finishes in both Playoffs events, and Abraham Ancer vaulted from 67 to 10 on the strength of a runner-up finish in New York.
Ancer will be one of four East Lake first timers, joining Jason Kokrak, 2019 tournament winner Corey Conners and Rookie of the Year candidate Sungjae Im. There are also four former champions in the field – Xander Schauffele (2017), Rory McIlroy (’16), Brandt Snedeker (’13) and Adam Scott, who won the last Tour Championship in the pre-FedExCup era in 2006.
Woods and Schauffele, the last two Tour Championship winners, did not win the season-long FedExCup those years, and the PGA Tour made the decision after the 2018 tournament to alter the format to ensure that there would not be two trophy winners on Sunday.
The 30 players competing at East Lake will begin the Tour Championship somewhere between 10-under and even par depending on their FedExCup ranking.
Justin Thomas, who won the 2017 FedExCup despite not winning at East Lake, begins this year’s tournament at 10-under par after winning impressively last week at Medinah to take over the No. 1 spot on the points list. Patrick Cantlay, last week’s runner-up, is second in points and starts the Tour Championship at minus-8.
Brooks Koepka, No. 1 at the end of the regular season, has dropped two spots to No.3 and starts minus-7, with Reed up to fourth after his win in New York and beginning minus-6. McIlroy is fifth and starts minus-5.
Players 6-10 (Jon Rahm, Matt Kuchar, Schauffele, Webb Simpson and Ancer), start minus-4, with U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland minus-3 along with the other players ranked 11-15: Tony Finau, Scott, Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama.
Beginning at minus-2 are players 16-20: Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Snedeker, Rickie Fowler and Kevin Kisner. Starting at minus-1 are players 21-25: Marc Leishman, Tommy Fleetwood, Conners, Im and Chez Reavie.
Players ranked 26 to 30 begin the Tour Championship without the benefit of any artificially increased red numbers and will be giving shots to the 25 ahead of them in the standings. The only players who will begin the tournament even par are Bryson DeChambeau, Oosthuizen, Augusta native Charles Howell, Lucas Glover and Kokrak, who birdied the 72nd hole Sunday at Medinah to edge out Kevin Tway for the final spot in the field.
One incentive for players near the bottom of the rankings who will be starting five shots behind McIlroy, seven behind Koepka and 10 behind Thomas, is that the World Golf Ranking will credit the player who shoots the low 72-hole score without any alterations with first place world ranking points. Since there is no event purse for the Tour Championship, the player with the lowest aggregate score will not receive any additional money. The 30 players are competing for some of the $60 million FedExCup bonus pool, with $15 million going to the champion.
Thomas begins with at least a 2-stroke advantage over the entire field (six to 10 shots over 25 of his other 29 competitors), and comes into the tournament off a terrific showing last week. He also has an excellent track record at East Lake with top 10s in all three of his starts and a runner-up finish in 2017.
Cantlay also comes into the tournament in top form, but has not played especially well in his two appearances at East Lake. Koepka is No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings by a wide margin, but has two middling finishes in the Playoffs and does not have a track record at East Lake commensurate with his play in the majors the past few years. Reed has never cracked the top 10 in five starts at East Lake, leaving McIlroy as perhaps the most likely challenger to Thomas. He has four top 10s in five visits to East Lake including a tie for second in 2014 and a playoff win in ’16.
Rahm ranks with McIlroy as the best player week in and week out in 2019, and tied for seventh in his first start at East Lake two years ago. St. Simons resident and former Georgia Tech great Kuchar was No. 1 in the standings for much of the 2018-19 season, but has not played his best golf of late and has never finished better than 10th in eight starts at East Lake.
Simpson has three top-5s at East Lake, but after a strong finish in the regular season did not contend in either of the two Playoffs events. He is competing for the sixth week in a row, beginning with the British Open.
Scott has back-to-back top 10s in the Playoffs and a win among four career top 10s at East Lake, while Johnson has an even better recent record at East Lake, but has two disappointing finishes in the Playoffs after a hot start in New York. Matsuyama has not had his best season, but looked sharp with the putter last week and has a pair of top-5s at East Lake.
Casey and Rose both have excellent records at East Lake, but both start eight behind Thomas, and likely will need some help from the players ahead of them to make a run at the $15 million prize for the FedExCup champion.
Snedeker and Fowler are perhaps the best hopes among the players in the bottom 15 of the standings, with both capable of getting hot with the putter and posting some low scores.
It’s been eight years since Howell has qualified for the Tour Championship, with several close calls since. Thanks to his top-30 finish in the FedExCup standings, Howell is back in the Masters for a second straight year in 2020 after a lengthy absence, and that will more than make up for the 10-shot deficit he is in to start this week’s tournament. Howell will be the defending champion in the RSM Classic at Sea Island GC in November, with his victory in 2018 ending a winless drought of more than a dozen years.
Howell, Kuchar, Reed and former UGA golfer Kisner are the four players in the field with ties to Georgia. Kisner comes into East Lake with solid efforts the last two weeks and a T3 in the Tour Championship two years ago. Howell placed second in his first Tour Championship appearance at East Lake in 2002 and was again second the next year in Houston, the last time the event was not played at East Lake. He was T6 in 2011 in his last start.
For those attending this week’s tournament, the forecast is for relatively mild August weather for Atlanta, with temperatures not predicted to exceed 90 degrees. As would be expected for an August event in Atlanta, there is a chance of rain all four days, but at least you won’t have to worry about missing any football if you’re at East Lake on the weekend.
Just bring your umbrella along with the sun screen.
For those watching from the comfort of home, broadcast times on the Golf Channel are 1-6 p.m. Thursday and Friday with early coverage from 1-2:30 Saturday and noon-1:30 Sunday. NBC will carry the tournament from 2:30-7 Saturday and 1:30-6 Sunday, with no early Saturday finish due to Notre Dame football.
The winning scores in the tournament since East Lake converted to more heat tolerant putting surfaces after 2007 have been consistent, with the average score for the last 11 winners exactly 10-under par. Stenson’s 13-under total 2013 is the low score in that span, with the highest winning score 7-under by Camilo Villegas in 2008, the first year after the new greens were installed.
There have been four playoffs in the 18 Tour Championships East Lake has hosted since 1998, and if recent history holds, this week’s tournament will end after 72 holes. There has not been a single playoff this entire calendar year on the PGA Tour, with Howell winning the last playoff in the 2018 finale at Sea Island GC.