There were two winners in Sunday’s final round of the Tour Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club – one expected, the other not so much.
Justin Thomas captured the FedExCup title and its $10 million bonus, moving past points leader Jordan Spieth with a runner-up finish at East Lake while Spieth tied for seventh. Although Thomas was unable to secure a sixth win in the 2016-17 season, he will almost certainly take Player of the Year honors over former junior golf rival Spieth.
The surprise was who finished ahead of Thomas. PGA Tour rookie Xander Schauffele, just two years removed from his college career at San Diego State, emerged as the surprise winner from a tense 5-player battle in the final round, carding a birdie on the par-5 18th to avoid a playoff with Thomas.
Schauffele shot 68 Sunday to finish at 12-under 268, with Thomas second at 269 following a final round 66.
After playing the role of contender for three days, Schauffele moved into a tie for the lead early on the back nine Sunday and held the lead outright until Thomas scored back-to-back birdies on 16 and 17 to pull even.
After Thomas failed to birdie the par-5 18th, Schauffele came up just short of the green in two, and pitched to 2 ½ feet before almost missing the putt for the win.
“I thought it missed,” Schauffele said after his victory. “That’s why I couldn’t even react to celebrate because I thought I just missed a two-footer to win. Still kind of in shock.”
Schauffele began the final round tied for second with former Georgia Bulldog golfer Kevin Kisner, with both players trailing 54-hole leader Paul Casey by two shots. Thomas was five off the lead in a tie for fourth along with Brooks Koepka and ex-Augusta State golfer Patrick Reed.
Neither Koepka nor Reed was a serious contender in the final round, but another former Bulldog joined Kisner in the battle for the Tour Championship victory. Russell Henley closed with a 65, the low score of the day, to finish tied for third at 270 with Kisner, who shot even par 70 Sunday. Casey faded to fifth at 271 after a 73, with Koepka closing with a 69 to take sixth at 273.
Casey, who has a history of struggling to hold final round leads, bogeyed holes 4 and 5 to fall into a 3-way tie with Kisner and Schauffele, with Kisner taking first outright when he holed a lengthy birdie putt on the par-5 sixth.
Kisner still had the lead going to the back nine, but quickly lost it with bogeys at 10 and 11. Schauffele moved to the front with a birdie at 13 and parred the next four holes before his winning birdie at the 18th. Thomas made a late move with a pair of precise approach shots on 16 and 17, but drew a tough lie in the rough after a big drive at 18 and was not able to give himself a good look at birdie.
Thomas struggled off the tee at times Sunday and had to scramble his way to a number of pars on the opening nine, finally puling into a tie for the lead when he hit his second shot to two feet for birdie on the par-4 13th. But another poor drive led to a bogey at 14 and forced Thomas to play catch-up the rest of the way.
“I was anxious this morning, a very similar feeling that I felt at the U.S. Open on Sunday.” Thomas said. Thomas shot 75 the final day at Erin Hills to drop to a tie for ninth after beginning the day tied for second, one off the lead. He came back to win the PGA Championship two months later and picked up fifth win of the season in the second Playoffs event in Boston.
“”It’s awesome,” Thomas said of taking the FedExCup title and a huge bonus check. “Just because I feel like I played so well this year. Life-changing events that just kind of ended with another kind of life-changing thing for me.”
Sunday’s big loser was Casey, who has played remarkably consistent golf in recent years and has an outstanding track record at East Lake. But he has only victory in the U.S., that coming in 2009, thanks to a series of final round struggles when in position to win.
Casey did not have many chances at birdie on Sunday, and made bogey on both of East Lake’s long and demanding par 3s (9 and 15), hitting his tee shot in the water on the latter to end any hopes of victory. He made his lone birdie of the day on 18 to end up outright fifth. He has now finished fourth or fifth in all four of his Tour Championship appearances at East Lake.
Spieth began the final round three shots behind Thomas, and would have earned the FedExCup title if he had finished tied or ahead of Thomas in the Tour Championship. He shot 67 Sunday highlighted by a hole-out for eagle on the 10th and a second near-eagle on the 13th, but a tie for seventh wasn’t good enough.
Thomas and Spieth finished 1-2 in the final FedExCUp standings with Schauffele moving all the way up to third.
Schauffele wrapped up Rookie of the Year honors with his victory after beginning the season as a mostly anonymous graduate of the Web.com Tour. He went straight from college to the Web.com Tour, qualifying in his first attempt. He finished his rookie season 26th on the money list, $975 out of 25th, which would have earned him PGA Tour status for 2016-17.
But he played well enough to finish 15th in the Web.com Finals series of events and move up to the PGA Tour after his near miss in the regular season. Until a tie for fifth in the U.S. Open, Schauffele had done little as a rookie, but followed that strong showing with a win three weeks later in the Greenbrier and played consistent golf after that, including top-20 finishes in the British Open, WGC at Firestone and two of the first three Playoffs events.
Schauffele was 33rd in points at the end of the regular season and 26 coming into East Lake before his unlikely victory Sunday.
The Tour Championship had different leaders at the end of all four rounds, beginning with an opening 64 by Kyle Stanley that matched the low score of the tournament. Stanley, who led four players by two shots including Casey and Koepka, did not break par the rest of the week and wound up in a tie for 20th. Schauffele was five back after a 69.
Thomas, Casey and Webb Simpson shared the 36-hole lead at 133, with Reed among four players one shot back at 134. Schauffele moved within two of the top following a second-round 65.
Casey took over the top spot after 54 holes at 198, with his 65 highlighted by a 5-hole stretch on the front nine on which he was 5-under. Casey’s torrid play began at the third hole and ended at the seventh, but he followed with bogeys at 8 and 9 after leading by as many as four.
Kisner and Schauffele were the only players fewer than five shots off Casey’s lead going to the final round, with Kisner matching Stanley’s 64 on Saturday and Schauffele adding a 65 to his 66 the day before.